I read a few things someone wrote and for the first time I saw a sentence starting with "in which case". This person does that very frequently, and it seemed really wrong to me.

Some time after that I saw another person doing the same (you can see it here, page 9, 5th paragraph). As this person is a very well-known and respected economist, who is also known for his good writing skills, I started to think that maybe it "sounded" weird just because I hadn't seen it before.

In my view "in which case" should be preceded by a comma, but I might be mistaken. My question is then: is it really wrong to start sentences with "in which case" or am I completely off?

EDIT: Here is the paragraph which contains the referred message:

Evil is a strong word. You may find the moral category too severe for something as mild as breaking a promise. In which case, you may want to change the title to "Distrust is the Root of all Money". But that wouldn’t have quite the same ring.

  • 7
    In which case would it need a comma?
    – delete
    Aug 6, 2010 at 0:44
  • As Kinopiko demonstrates, it can be used correctly at the beginning of a sentence. It's only wrong, I think, if the "which" is referring to another sentence. If it's self-contained, though, there shouldn't be any problem.
    – kitukwfyer
    Aug 6, 2010 at 0:48
  • 1
    On page 9, paragraph 5 of that paper you linked to, I believe it is used incorrectly. The "which is referring to the previous sentence, and should therefore be preceded by a comma.
    – kitukwfyer
    Aug 6, 2010 at 1:02
  • 1
    This would benefit from inlining the example in question.
    – Charlie
    Aug 6, 2010 at 2:37
  • 1
    preceded, the coma should come before "in which case", not after (that is, in the case I mentioned and related cases)
    – Vivi
    Aug 6, 2010 at 9:41

6 Answers 6


This is a style issue. As far as I can tell, there's nothing particularly grammatically wrong with the construction itself:

Dougal says that he will beat me to within an inch of my life. In which case I will start carrying a shotgun concealed within my socks.

Personally I dislike this style of writing, which reminds me of the "Yes. It is. As you say." style of "copywriterese".

  • 4
    How about this: "Dougal has a friend. In whose socks you can find a shotgun."? It seems a construction that parallels the one in question, yet is clearly wrong (a sentence fragment, not a sentence). What's the grammatical difference between the two? Aug 6, 2010 at 2:14
  • 1
    I don't see how your example is ungrammatical; it is not a fragment. Try rearranging: "You can find a shotgun in [his/the/those]whose socks." It seems to be a locative adjunct.
    – Charlie
    Aug 6, 2010 at 2:52
  • @itrekkie: Ok adjunct, not fragment. Whatever it is, it sounds odd. :-) But is it grammatically different from the construction in the question? Do you think that "Dougal has a friend. In whose socks you can find a shotgun." is perfectly acceptable too? (Grammatical or not…) Aug 6, 2010 at 3:31
  • @ShreevatsaR: Would you consider writing an answer? It seems wrong to me too, I think because it is using a relative pronoun (and thus trying to be a subordinate clause) yet it is an entire sentence. You are right that comparing with "that" is misleading, because "that" can function as a demonstrative pronoun ("That is a cat") as well as a relative pronoun ("I liked the cat that I saw"), whereas "which" cannot (though it can be a question, which is clearly not the case here :).
    – psmears
    Feb 6, 2011 at 11:23
  • @psmears: No, I don't feel I know enough here. :-) Feb 6, 2011 at 11:49

I'm going to go against the grain of the current answers, and say that this is indeed wrong. That said, I should qualify that in a couple of ways: first, whether something is grammatically correct is dependent on a number of factors - what is acceptable in colloquial speech may not be in formal writing, and what is acceptable in one region may not be in another; what's more, there is no "language police", and accomplished writers often "break the rules", either to achieve a particular effect, or because doing so allows them to express their meaning more clearly - and there is nothing wrong with this. It's also worth noting that the original context is a lecture, and therefore speech (albeit more formal than conversation) rather than formal writing, so criticising it in the way I am about to is somewhat unfair.

With that out of the way, I would advise against this in formal written contexts (though it is absolutely fine in speech, where sentence fragments and disjointed sentences are the rule rather than the exception!). My reasoning is as follows:

The word "which", in this context, is a relative pronoun (functioning as a determiner). As such, it functions as the link between something referred to in the main clause and the same item in a subordinate clause:

I am learning mathematics, the study of which subject goes back to ancient times.

Here the relative pronoun is used to join together the two sentences

  • I am learning mathematics.
  • The study of this subject [i.e. mathematics] goes back to ancient times.

with the first as the main clause, and the second as the subordinate.

To look at the example in the question:

You may find the moral category too severe [...]. In which case, you may want to change the title [...].

Here, the second sentence contains only a subordinate clause, with no main clause - and this is what is "against the rules", so to speak - and many readers may find it jarring. It is parallel to:

*That is a dog. Which I saw yesterday.

...which is much more clearly wrong.

Joining the two sentences with a comma (or perhaps a dash to provide greater separation, since in this case there are already several clauses separated by commas) remedies this.

[ On a separate note (for clarification): this usage of "which" - as a determiner qualifying a noun - is different from and much less common than using it as a pronoun in its own right, for example:

I am learning mathematics, which is a difficult subject.

In both cases the "which"-clause is subordinate. ]

  • He's using 'which' to mean the same thing as 'that'. The question of whether 'which' has that meaning/use or doesn't can't be reasoned out. Many of these two words meanings and uses overlap, so you can't just rule out that this is one of those cases. Sep 30, 2011 at 13:20
  • @DavidSchwartz: "'which' to mean the same thing as 'that'." Therein lies the whole controversy. I thought the OP was right. Then psmears nearly convinced me that wasn't the case! All the same, I am in awe of psmears' arguments.
    – Kris
    Dec 9, 2011 at 9:53

In this case, which is a demonstrative, a determiner. As I've demonstrated, that sequence is fine. Also consider:

  • In that case, do it.
  • In this case, do it.
  • In these cases…

The sequence forms a prepositional phrase, which is a fine way to start a sentence (e.g., "on the way, I did it."). Above all, I think it sounds fine, have heard it, and would use it. That's what matters, right?

I think the aversion to this phrase is more a matter of style. You could easily confuse a reader; what does "in which case" actually refer to? By using "in which case", we lose an amount of semantic information, but that's the price of brevity; another example: the situation is the same when using pronouns. This fact doesn't make it ungrammatical. The example in the linked paper reads fine to me, though is stilted and formal. I would prefer to use "in this case", which seems a shade less formal.

  • I like the formality! It just really doesn't sound correct to me. I get that in some cases it may not be a problem (like the comments to my question show), but I can't yet agree on the example I gave above. In summary, I am not convinced by your answer.
    – Vivi
    Aug 6, 2010 at 0:59
  • 2
    The problem with the sentence she linked to, in my opinion, is that you can't read it out of context. "In which case, you may want to change the title to 'Distrust is the Root of all Money.'" Does it bother me within the paragraph? No. Does it make any sense outside of the paragraph? No. I have to wonder: In what case? I don't think a sentence is technically correct unless it makes sense on its own.
    – kitukwfyer
    Aug 6, 2010 at 1:08
  • 1
    My reading of the linked paper was that "in which case" is overly formal, and is my only real stylistic complaint about it. The utterance is well-formed, and I'd argue that objectivity on this style does not make the phrase ungrammatical.
    – Charlie
    Aug 6, 2010 at 1:09
  • 3
    You shouldn't be comparing it with "In this case" and "In that case", but with something like "In whose name, …" which sounds wrong to my ears. Aug 6, 2010 at 1:48
  • I am beyond unconvinced that ‘which’ can ever function as a demonstrative, formal and stilted or not. It cannot. Ever. It is a relative and interrogative pronoun that does not require a very great level of proximity to its antecedent, but it does require an antecedent. Dec 7, 2013 at 22:43

It's an idiosyncrasy of that writer. Just like how people habitually start their sentences with the word, "So."

But it's also redundant. Remove all instances of "In which case," and the statement doesn't lose any information, form or sense whatsoever.

  • 4
    You most certainly do lose important information if you remove it! That would be akin to removing “just like” from your second sentence here, and then saying that no information or sense was lost. Dec 7, 2013 at 22:40

I don't buy the argument that there might be anything objectionable about OP's cited example.

Let's start by accepting that "which" is routinely used in contexts where "that" could reasonably be used, and that the oft-cited restrictive/non-restrictive distinction is mere pedantic convention, at best sporadically known of or observed by a minority of native speakers.

In that case there's no reason to suppose I couldn't reasonably have used "which" as the second word in this sentence. In which case the argument against so doing is revealed as spurious.

The argument against starting a sentence with "which" is equally flawed. This seems to turn on the proposition that the referent of "which" must precede it within the same sentence. But again, that's a mere convention which is far from universally recognised or observed. Just as "In which case" can refer back to a case presented in a preceding sentence, so the single word "which" can refer back to one or more preceding sentences. Which I feel more than justifies this final sentence.

Actually, I can't just stop there. I must point out that if a sentence starts with "In which case", it's entirely a stylistic choice whether to follow it with a comma or not.


Not only is it wrong to use "in which case" to begin a sentence, it is completely wrong. "Which" is a relative pronoun that can never modify a noun, since only adjectives and participles can modify nouns.


You may find the moral category too severe for something as mild as breaking a promise. In which case, you may want to change the title to "Distrust is the Root of all Money"

should be

"You may find the moral category too severe for something as mild as breaking a promise, in the case of which you may want to change the title to "Distrust is the Root of all Money".

People only make such a mistake because such constructions are rarely used, and most do not know how to use them.

That is why one will hear

I have never heard of the company that my friend works in the New York City office location of (it).

rather than

I have never heard of the company in the New York City office location of which my friend works.

  • According to the OED which is also an adjective. Jan 19, 2015 at 21:34
  • Yes, "which" is an interrogative adjective, but when it is used as a relative pronoun, it can't be used as a "relative adjective"--there is no such thing.
    – user67444
    Jan 31, 2015 at 22:35

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