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Avoid the Dangling “Which”–A Sure Sign That You’ve Rambled

We all have so much going on, both in physical reality and in our heads, that it’s common to start a sentence on one topic and finish it in totally different terrain.

For example, a colleague said the other day “I just finished compiling those evaluations. So glad to have that off my desk, which reminds me that I should call Cynthia and tell her I can’t keep our lunch date tomorrow because I now have a conference call with a client scheduled for the lunch hour.”

What’s the problem? The way this is written, the colleague is saying “the desk” reminded him to call Cynthia. The word “which,” used carelessly to link unrelated or loosely related ideas, causes the problem.

A rewrite could be along the lines of “I just finished compiling those evaluations. I’m so glad to have that off my desk—that task kept me so busy that I’ve just now remembered that I need to  call Cynthia….”

It’s easy to make this error—we all do it when speak informally, but we should avoid it in our writing and more formal speaking.

Another example: “I’ve been sick, which reminds me—I need to have my prescription refilled.”

Yes, we understand that the writer probably means that the fact that she’s been sick reminds her. But which must refer to a specific noun—and no noun in this sentence logically connects to the which. “Sick” does not remind anyone of anything.

Perhaps you’ve heard something similar to this ramble:

I was planning to drive to Denver to visit my family last weekend, which is a riot because you never know what’ll happen. (What’s always a riot—Denver? The family? Weekends?) I ran into this guy that I used to date off and on a couple of years ago when I pulled into a service station for gas. We chatted a few minutes and decided to get a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant, which is something I don’t typically do. (Chat? Eat? Interrupt a planned trip? Reconnect with an old boyfriend?) He spent the first half hour talking about himself, only stopping to order spaghetti, which is why I stopped dating him in the first place! (Because he ordered spaghetti? Because he talked about himself incessantly?)

The word which has to substitute for a specific noun in the sentence. It can’t refer to a general concept, hidden in the reader’s mind. Don’t use the word to link ideas carelessly—you’ll cause problems for your listener or reader.

In my sentences, I go where no man has gone before… I am a boon to the English language.

—George W. Bush