I have always had trouble identifying to which noun 'which' refers to in sentences. At this moment I am writing my thesis, and of the examples I am struggling with is the following:

We use confirmatory factor analysis to build our models, which hypothesises that the covariance between the observed variables is caused by a common factor: the latent variable of interest.

In this example, I intend to refer back to 'confirmatory factor analysis', but I am not sure if I actually refer to 'our models'. Is there a rule of thumb, or a trick, to be able to determine which word which refers to?

  • As a relative clause marker, which can refer more easily to some constituent -- a noun phrase, a clause, a summation of previous clauses -- than to some one single word. That's the way modification and reference seem to work in the simple example sentences used in grammar schools, but in fact that's a simplistic version that doesn't represent English very well. In your example sentence, which can refer to (a) your using confirmatory factor analysis, (b) the analysis itself, (c) its confirmatory nature, or (d) the models built from it. If you want to be precise, use shorter sentences. – John Lawler Aug 28 '18 at 20:13
  • It's very poorly written. – Hot Licks Aug 28 '18 at 22:01
  • @HotLicks Mind telling me what part is poorly written; or perhaps provide a suggestion? I intend to learn from it :) – Amonet Aug 29 '18 at 16:52
  • If you can't tell which which refers to then rewrite it so that you're sure. – Hot Licks Aug 29 '18 at 18:11

Your question identifies a very common cause of ambiguity in writing. Whoever wrote the sentence you quote knew what it was that "which" referred to. It was obvious to him/her. But it is not obvious to the reader.

So if you have always had trouble in identifying which noun "which" refers to, you are not alone, even amongst sophisticated native speakers.

An exactly similar problem can arise with "This..." at the beginning of a sentence following the description of some state of affairs. When in my professional career it was my job to edit manuscripts, I made it a rule that 'This' must be followed immediately by a noun to remove ambiguity.

  • I wrote it myself, and you're spot on I think. Your suggestion about "this + noun" is very useful; I try to do this as much as I can to be clear. Although it's not always easy to both write in a clear way and use longer / "more appealing" sentences. – Amonet Aug 29 '18 at 16:54

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