Is the "which" form falling into disuse?

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YankeeDave

New Member
American English
This morning on NPR I heard in the space of 30 minutes one person refer to "the age most women think they can conceive" (referring to many women's false belief that they can conceive a child well into their 40s or later), another talk about Herman Cain's assertions about "the lengths his opponents will go to discredit him," and there was another - similar to the first - that escapes me, also omitting what to me would have been a necessary form using a preposition with the relative pronoun "which".
Were these a sign of a trend? The first sentence quoted above is tricky - I probably would've rephrased it - but seems to me to need "at which," or perhaps "until which," and the second sentence could use "to which." Maybe this was just an aberration, but I suspect not.
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Hard to quantify, but a little work with Google Books shows some forms in use in pre-1950 books that would not be usual today. I looked for "lengths he will go", hoping that would give the most results. Perhaps the most common is "to what lengths he will go". There are also "what lengths he will go" and "what lengths he will go to" (with the preposition 'to' adjacent to the infinitive marker 'to'). The "lengths to which" variant was not common.

    I do agree most of us are more likely to use the preposition in the first example, and say "the age most women think they could conceive at"; but that's an entirely subjective impression (these are notoriously often wrong), and I don't know how to search for quantifiable results on that one.
     

    Askalon

    Senior Member
    English (US)
    For me, neither of those phrases need "at/to which". They sounds just fine to me as is. If anything, adding "which" in there might make it a little wordy or a bit more formal.

    Changes or new trends tend to be exhibited to greater extents in younger speakers, and I am a younger speaker of American English, so it's possible that this is a change occurring in (American) English. To be honest I never would have guessed that some people find it necessary to include "which"--for me it's as natural as dropping "that" in some embedded clauses (I know that you're smart vs. I know you're smart​).
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I am somewhat more conservative; I regret the decline in at which, to which, etc. Compare,

    "He took out a screwdriver with which he opened up the cover." :)
    with
    "He took out a screwdriver that he opened the cover up with." :rolleyes:
     

    YankeeDave

    New Member
    American English
    Maybe it's just my ear that finds these phrases jarring. I would never say, "I would go great lengths to [do something]," but "I would go to great lengths ... ." M-W seems to support that, as it defines "length" as "the degree to which something (as a course of action or a line of thought) is carried —often used in plural <went to great lengths to learn the truth>." (Note the use of "to which" in the definition as well.)
    Also, "the age most women think they can conceive" sounds, literally, as if you're talking about women conceiving of a certain age, not conceiving at a certain age. I know both phrases are perfectly comprehensible, but to me they sound not quite right.
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    I suspect that conversationally this happens much more than (it does) in written English. The "it does" I just omitted is an example of verb phrase ellipsis and your example might be called a prepositional phrase ellipsis - in many cases acceptable in casual conversation but probably not in good written English.
    ... the age (at which) most women think (that) they can conceive ... has a couple of elements (that are) missing :D
     

    LilianaB

    Banned
    Lithuanian
    For me, neither of those phrases need "at/to which". They sounds just fine to me as is. If anything, adding "which" in there might make it a little wordy or a bit more formal.

    Changes or new trends tend to be exhibited to greater extents in younger speakers, and I am a younger speaker of American English, so it's possible that this is a change occurring in (American) English. To be honest I never would have guessed that some people find it necessary to include "which"--for me it's as natural as dropping "that" in some embedded clauses (I know that you're smart vs. I know you're smart​).
    I agree with you. It sounds absolutely natural to me, the way people talk, in New York at least. It would have sounded strange with the which, or at least not so smooth.
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    also omitting what to me would have been a necessary form using a preposition with the relative pronoun "which".
    I agree. In your first example the great number of ellipses renders the phrase ambiguous, or rather - ambiguously inelegant :) :
    The age most women think they can conceive - sounds like the women think they can conceive age, which is either divine or utterly nonsensical. :D

    The other example is not so bad (the one about the lengths).
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Of course, nobody is going to think age can be conceived. This is out of the question. But the phrase says it nonetheless.
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    I think there's a distinction to be made here. Paul Q quotes these two sentences:

    "He took out a screwdriver with which he opened up the cover."
    "He took out a screwdriver that he opened the cover up with."

    Here the "which" is removed and the preposition is sent to the end. But I think Yankee Dave is referring to the removal of the preposition along with "which", so that "the age at which most women think they can conceive" is reduced to "the age most women think they can conceive", without even putting "at" at the end. Personally I don't find anything wrong here, because instead of "the age at which" we can say "the age when" and it's quite normal to remove "when" at the beginning of a relative clause.
    I have more difficulty with "the lengths his opponents will go to discredit him". It means "the lengths to which his opponents will go in order to discredit him". Less formally this becomes "the lengths his opponents will go to to discredit him". Maybe it's the repetition of "to" that makes the speaker want to remove one of them, but to me it sounds odd. I'd separate the two "to's" as above, by using either "to which" for the first one or "in order to" for the second one.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Those sentences sound like normal English to me.
    Absolutely nothing would have sprang to my mind thinking something was missing.
    If it is linguistic change... bring it on!
     

    ribran

    Senior Member
    English - American
    Maybe it's just my ear that finds these phrases jarring. I would never say, "I would go great lengths to [do something]," but "I would go to great lengths ... ." M-W seems to support that, as it defines "length" as "the degree to which something (as a course of action or a line of thought) is carried —often used in plural <went to great lengths to learn the truth>." (Note the use of "to which" in the definition as well.)
    Also, "the age most women think they can conceive" sounds, literally, as if you're talking about women conceiving of a certain age, not conceiving at a certain age. I know both phrases are perfectly comprehensible, but to me they sound not quite right.
    OK, so you, too, thought there was a "to" missing from the second sentence.

    In regard to the first one, the way the speaker phrased it seems common enough in informal spoken English, but I think I would naturally say, "The age at which most women think they can conceive."
     

    Pertinax

    Senior Member
    BrE->AuE
    I agree with Einstein.
    This is the place we met. :tick:
    That's the time I left. :tick:
    That's the age she conceived. :tick:
    the lengths they went to discredit him :cross:

    The last should be:
    the lengths they went to to discredit him :tick:
    Yes, that looks strange in writing. But it would be entirely natural in speech, since the first "to" would be stressed and therefore pronounced quite differently.
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    I The last should be:
    the lengths they went to to discredit him :tick:
    Yes, that looks strange in writing. But it would be entirely natural in speech, since the first "to" would be stressed and therefore pronounced quite differently.
    Yes, I forgot to make that point about the difference between speech and writing.:)
     
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