While grammarians have been retreading fuddy-duddy debates about which vs. that and restrictive clauses, which has been living a secret life. Which, how crazy is that?

Below are some examples I’ve collected. The usual roles of which (pronoun, determiner), can’t easily account for these. My claim is that which is acting as a discourse marker. Some other examples of discourse markers in English are and, so, you know, furthermore, and I mean. Some key qualities of DMs (from Schourup 1999) are that:

  1. They signal some connection between the unit of discourse they introduce and some preceding unit of discourse
  2. They can be removed from an utterance without affecting its truth-conditional meaning, or its grammaticality
  3. They usually occur at the beginning of the discourse unit they mark
  4. They have weak syntactic ties to their discourse unit

Schouroup also notes that “most forms claimed to be DMs occur primarily in speech… Association of a particular DM with the written or spoken channel is rarely strict and is often tied only to the relative formality/informality of the DM”. which as DM definitely seems to be an informal construction. It was easy to find examples in places like Reddit and Twitter, and in corpora of spoken English, but very difficult to find any examples in books.



[…] If you have food items and games on your list, it comes off as you begging for those items. Which, don’t get me wrong, if you are in a hard spot, by all means ask for help. Just, do it on the subreddits that are designed for that, ya know? […]


The only thing you’d be Missing (If you’re still on the fence) is the introductions of Apollo and Trucy. Which, a friend of mine played the first case on Demo, and she was… VERY Confused about who Apollo was!


Yeah. It looks like it knocked the wind out of him. Which, if you’ve ever had that injury, it sucks.


[…] Suddenly I’m an ignorant idiot. Which, no. That’s not actually reality. I just have a different view. […]


Google Books

From Women on Fire, a 2010 collection of monologues:

I was paralyzed. I couldn’t write, which why don’t you just pull a plastic bag over my head and tie it around my neck.

(Perhaps we should say that, in cases such as this, which is acting as a conjunction, but not as a DM, because of the violation of rule #2 above. Removing which here does in fact render the host sentence ungrammatical - though it seems like the author could just as well have used a period or a dash in place of the comma.)

From A Work in Progress Life Love Fun Living in Australia - Part 1, a 2013 collection of stories:

I needed a “drop my bags spot” just off the floor, again, because I don’t want to put my hand inside a bag and have a cockroach run up my arm making me scream - which, yes, it actually did happen, and I’m embarrassed to say, yes, I did scream.

Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English

JULIE: So today - Finally it’s been dry enough for Tad to come out and, and take the rest of the sand off. And I sold it to him,
GARY: Oh he was taking it out.
JULIE: He was taking it out.
GARY: Oh okay, I saw the big dumptruck.
JULIE: Yeah. Well, that was Havens was taking it out. Um, Orville Havens. and uh his son. Which I can’t remember his name. Starts with an el. Lenny or something.

CORINNA: This one guy was t- say it was like, … they got sent to the village. Which you don’t wanna get sent to the village. But they do. And…

(The full version of this conversation is hilarious and astoundingly NSFW.)

REBECCA: and, I, my worry is that they don’t relate to what a woman feels when something like that is happening, because their experience would be totally different. If a man exposes himself, which, a man would never do that. Because, number one, they pick out, I think, more vulnerable people.

What does it mean?

When I started writing this post, I thought I had discovered new linguistic territory, making the mistake of thinking that if something isn’t on the internet, it doesn’t exist. But in fact, The Dictionary of American Regional English gives three definitions of which-as-conjunction, starting with:

  1. Used with a following anaphoric pronoun or pronomial adj or adv to form the equivalent of a non-restrictive relative pronoun or adv.

This definition (also described in this 2003 Language Log post - thanks to Mark Liberman for pointing it out) covers such examples as…

Generally, installation failures can be fixed by running the same line again, which, yeah, [that]’s super janky, whatever.

this one … guy was t- say it was like, they got sent to the village. Which you don’t wanna get sent to [the village]. But they do.

because their experience would be totally different. If a man exposes himself, which, a man would never do [that].

Removing the bolded NPs above gives a normal relative clause.

The dictionary describes this construction as chiefly southern (which agrees with this mention of conjunctive which in a 1983 William Safire column, where it’s described as a “confusing” Southern regionalism).

The other two definitions are:

2. Used without an anaphoric pronoun as a connective particle to introduce a parenthetical, usu explanatory remark
3. also and which, but which; Used without an anaphoric pronoun to mark the connection of a clause or sentence to what precedes: and, and so, as to that.

Incidentally, 1 and 2 have corresponding OED glosses, but 3 does not. The OED flags them as ‘**** Peculiar constructions’, and begins its version of #2 with “hence, in vulgar use…”.

These cover the remaining examples, such as “which, are you serious?”, or “Which, okay.”. Though this is hardly surprising, given how broad these definitions are, particularly #3, which in some sense describes any discourse marker.

This is unsatisfying because it feels like there’s more subtlety governing which clauses can be naturally linked up with “which”. My sense is that all or most examples falling under #3 (the ‘leftovers’ which have no anaphoric pronoun and which aren’t particularly parenthetical), could be described as giving the speaker’s reaction to or commentary on the clause or sentence that immediately precedes.

This accords well with examples like “which, are you serious?”, “which… why is he even in this conversation?”, and “Which, okay.”.

I get the sense that conjunctive-which - particularly without an anaphoric pronoun - has gained popularity in the last 10 years or so, and that parenthetical/commentary which is a promising up-and-coming discourse marker. But I don’t have any data to back that up. If I find some, I’ll totally write another post about it.

Tagged: Linguistics