Thursday, June 17, 2010

Which Hunting With James Thurber

American humorist James Thurber (1894-1961), best known for his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," once wrote, "Ours is a precarious language, as every writer knows, in which the merest shadow line often separates affirmation from negation, sense from nonsense, and one sex from the other." In this essay, which first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1929, Thurber introduces several examples to demonstrate both his fascination and frustration with a familiar English pronoun.


by James Thurber (1894-1961)

The relative pronoun “which” can cause more trouble than any other word, if recklessly used. Foolhardy persons sometimes get lost in which-clauses and are never heard of again. My distinguished contemporary, Fowler, cites several tragic cases, of which the following is one: “It was rumored that Beaconsfield intended opening the Conference with a speech in French, his pronunciation of which language leaving everything to be desired . . ." That’s as much as Mr. Fowler quotes because, at his age, he was afraid to go any farther. The young man who originally got into that sentence was never found. His fate, however, was not as terrible as that of another adventurer who became involved in a remarkable which-mire. Fowler has followed his devious course as far as he safely could on foot: “Surely what applies to games should also apply to racing, the leaders of which being the very people from whom an example might well be looked for . . ." Not even Henry James could have successfully emerged from a sentence with “which,” “whom,” and “being” in it. The safest way to avoid such things is to follow in the path of the American author, Ernest Hemingway. In his youth he was trapped in a which-clause one time and barely escaped with his mind. He was going along on solid ground until he got into this: “It was the one thing of which, being very much afraid--for whom has not been warned to fear such things--he . . .” Being a young and powerfully built man, Hemingway was able to fight his way back to where he had started, and begin again. This time he skirted the treacherous morass in this way: “He was afraid of one thing. This was the one thing. He had been warned to fear such things: Everybody has been warned to fear such things.” Today Hemingway is alive and well, and many happy writers are following along the trail he blazed.

What most people don’t realize is that one “which” leads to another. Trying to cross a paragraph by leaping from “which” to “which” is like Eliza crossing the ice. The danger is in missing a “which” and falling in. A case in point is this: “He went up to a pew which was in the gallery, which brought him under a colored window which he loved and always quieted his spirit.” The writer, worn out, missed the last “which”--the one that should come just before “always” in that sentence. But supposing he had got it in! We would have: “He went up to a pew which was in the gallery, which brought him under a colored window which he loved and which always quieted his spirit.” Your inveterate whicher in this way gives the effect of tweeting like a bird or walking with a crutch, and is not welcome in the best company.

It is well to remember that one “which” leads to two and that two “whiches” multiply like rabbits. You should never start out with the idea that you can get by with one “which.” Suddenly they are all around you. Take a sentence like this: “It imposes a problem which we either solve, or perish.” On a hot night, or after a hard day’s work, a man often lets himself get by with a monstrosity like that, but suppose he dictates that sentence bright and early in the morning. It comes to him typed out by his stenographer and he instantly senses that something is the matter with it. He tries to reconstruct the sentence, still clinging to the “which,” and gets something like this: “It imposes a problem which we either solve, or which, failing to solve, we must perish on account of.” He goes to the water-cooler, gets a drink, sharpens his pencil, and grimly tries again. “It imposes a problem which we either solve or which we don’t solve . . ." He begins once more: “It imposes a problem which we either solve, or which we do not solve, and from which . . .” The more times he does it the more “whiches” he gets. The way out is simple: “We must either solve this problem, or perish.” Never monkey with “which.” Nothing except getting tangled up in a typewriter ribbon is worse.

"Which," by James Thurber, was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1929 and reprinted in Thurber's The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities, Harper, 1931.

PS - Happy Birthday M.C. Escher!

1 comment:

  1. I love Thurber. I used to read him as a kid. I especially liked his drawings of dogs. I think my interest was sparked by the short-lived TV series "My World and Welcome to It", starring William Windom, which (uh-oh, there I go) was based upon Thurber's writings. That experience led to many happy hours reading other contemporaries of Thurber's, like S.J Perelman and Robert Benchley. So, maybe TV isn't all bad.

    I'm seem to have gotten off topic, here. My points are: 1) thanks for sharing this wonderful essay with us, and 2) I'll shall now be more careful (perhaps even paranoid) about my whiching.