“In Which” Craft

December 20, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Student writing.  I’ve gotten used to the random apostrophe that makes it’s appearance in some plural’s but not others.  But now, in the last couple of years, I’ve been seeing a rise in the gratuitous “in which ” where “which” would do.  On the final exam Monday one student wrote.
The workers had a specific task in which they did and left.
I get a half dozen or more of these “in which” constructions each semester.  Montclair students are not the best writers, and I thought that this might be a local thing.  But I recently came across a blog post by a graduate student in a writing course at an expensive private university.*
It seems that memes and videos of violent and/or grotesque images are constantly posted to social media sites in which people find humorous and are quick to like, repost, retweet and share.
Maybe she meant to say, “sites in which people find humor” and then changed it to “humorous”  and forgot to delete the “in.” If so it’s just a proofreading error.  But maybe it isn’t.  The examples I see from my students are not proofreading errors.  The students apparently like the way “in which” sounds. But why?

My guess as to the origins and appeal of “in which” is the same as my guess about “for Robert and I.”  It sounds more upscale, more sophisticated.  If you’re taught that educated people say, “It is I” instead of the more common, “It’s me,” and “Robert and I went swimming” rather than “Robert and me went swimming,” you might assume this more general rule: if you’re not sure, and if the objective pronoun sounds ordinary, switch to the subjective pronoun.**   

In the same way, educated people also say “in which.”  Stiffly formal English required “in which” so that speakers and writers could avoid ending a sentence, or even a clause or phrase, with a preposition.***  Not “the town I live in” but “the town in which I live.”  The first one sounds like the way ordinary people talk, but the second, with its “in which,” sounds like the way educated people talk.

My hunch is that this use of “in which” will not catch on.  But then I would have said the same thing about “between you and I”  (or in the Easy Aces’ version, “entre nous and me”).

(An earlier post on talking sophisticated – duplicity instead of duplication, idyllic instead of ideal, etc. – is here )

* The course is taught by a good writer who, I think, emphasizes clear and simple language and warns against pretentious sounding writing.

** The real problem is that English does not have a disjunctive pronoun – the equivalent of the French moi.  “C’est moi”  and “pour Robert et moi.” In strictly correct English, we would have to use I in the first phrase and me in the second.

***A silly rule probably based on the silly idea that English is really Latin. 

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