In Which Our Hero Puzzles Over A Nonsensical Quirk In Which He Sees a Lot These Days

If you want a fascinating example of the law of unintended consequences, check out how the non-rule “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” has led to an irritating and meaningless sentence quirk that is maddeningly popular, particularly among inexperienced writers who want to sound more “fancy” or “correct.”

(I won’t bore you with the history of how the preposition “rule” came about. Many linguists have covered this quite well. Just know that it is not and has never been an actual grammatical rule, but arose from a beef between two writers.)

Sometimes a writer wants to write something simple and clear, like: “That is the magic orb we trapped the invisible pterodactyl in.”

There is nothing wrong with this sentence, and identifying a specific magic orb clearly and quickly could be quite important, so one naturally reaches for such a sentence.

However, someone who knows only a little about grammar but who loves to draw condescendingly from their quiver of “Rules One Must Not Break” pipes up and says, “Actually, it should be, ‘That is the magic orb in which we trapped the pterodactyl.’

Now technically, there is nothing WRONG with the latter construction either, and many people have been sold the preposition “rule” so successfully that it just *sounds* better to them. But for my money, “That is the magic orb we trapped the pterodactyl in” is a clearer and better sentence. There is no need to add a nuts-n-bolts word like “which” — a pragmatic nugget in the category of workhorse words that should be stricken whenever one can do without them; they usually don’t add much art or elegance. Simply stated is usually better stated.

But of course the larger problem here is that the pedantic grammarian’s “correction” is no longer really even needed in the specific moment, as this tyrannical “rule” has bafflingly and tragically wormed its way into the vague recesses of the popular unconscious.

Which really is tragic, since it is enough of a struggle to get people to internalize *important* and meaningful actual grammatical rules.

But wait! It gets worse:

The warping caused by this “rule” unfortunately extends beyond inelegance and slops over into unintelligibility, as illustrated by the resultant evolution of the impish little trickster phrase “in which” — a standalone, pre-packaged artifact that seems to have become completely unmoored from the Never End a Sentence With A Preposition nonsense and has become a monster in and of itself, slouching ever toward obfuscation.

By way of example, I submit some actual sentences from student drafts this past semester in my writing classes. I do not present these as a way of complaining about student writing, since I teach many excellent writers every semester; I just happen to have a lot of data to draw from, and these are some very recent examples:

– “I said to hell with school, I will find something new, in which I did.”

– “It was one of the biggest multiplayer games at the time to come out that in which did not require the internet to play with friends.”

– “This is the exact customer service I expect to receive once I walk into an environment in which I don’t recognize.”

– “The movie is a romance/drama animated film in which helps people see the different points of view through time.”

– “We are all deeply connected to a mutual internal compass that points to unity, peace and kinship in which no other species in our known world possesses.”

These sentences run the gamut in terms of overall quality, but they all have one thing in common: the erroneous idea that “in which” makes sentences more correct or formal or (preposterously!) clearer. Many writers just assume this sort of stilted and unthinking jargon is required of them in formal writing, thanks to the supposed formality demanded by prescriptivists and pedants. Would any of these students use “in which” in such a way in their everyday speaking with friends and loved ones? Doubtful.

Many of my students would struggle to identify a preposition at all (not an insult, just a fact), to say nothing of understanding some obscure, confusing tradition based upon prepositions. So it cannot even be said that they are attempting to not violate some obscure “rule.”

No, it’s much weirder than that: this silly non-rule gained such solid standing among the finger-waggers and forever-correcting pedantics that “in which” has become its own little pre-packaged nonsense nugget to be inserted randomly in a sentence to allegedly help intensify or clarify.

Which is a great example of irony if you need one.

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