Here's a standard English sentence:

The folder which is missing from the principal's office contained the answers to today's exam.

(Separate question, discussed elsewhere I'm sure, whether it should really be "which" or "that".)

But simpler is usually better, so I would actually just write:

The folder missing from the principal's office ...

But my question is: I have seen legal statements which would write:

The folder, which folder is missing from the principal's office, contained ...

Assuming that the writer is actually correct in thinking that s/he's adding some value by repeating "folder" after the "which", what value is s/he adding?

  • Here's the which vs that question, if you're curious: right here
    – ngmiceli
    Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 18:58
  • 7
    note that legal writing has a much different purpose than even formal writing, in that any and all possible ambiguity, even when the meaning seems perfectly clear, could be cause for problems. That is why it's redundant, and why it is so much slower to change with language (because lawyers know what the archaic phrases mean, they'd have to establish what newer ones did.)
    – KutuluMike
    Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 23:55

6 Answers 6


This, like much legal language, is archaic. This particular case is a Non-Restrictive Relative Clause, which in ordinary English would just be

  • The folder, which is missing from the principal's office, ...

As Tim says, it's the extra folder that's the unnecessary padding, not the which. Which is utterly standard for non-restrictive relatives.

In this case, folder is Pied-Piped along with which to the front of the clause, in order to (try to) prevent any possibility of ambiguity about the referent of which. Repeating words or phrases redundantly, like the party of the first part (instead of he or they) is a standard practice for much legal language.

Pied-Piping is limited in modern English to prepositions with relative pronouns as objects, and NPs that command such prepositional phrases. Consider the sentence

  • The government determines the contents of the folder.

This may be relativized as

  • The folder, which the government determines the contents of, ...
  • The folder, of which the government determines the contents, ...
  • The folder, the contents of which the government determines, ...
  • P.S. Nonrestrictive relatives are also called "Supplementary relatives" by Huddleston and Pullum, as Barrie points out. Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 19:33
  • Regarding "pied-piping" I like this article: grammar.about.com/od/pq/g/piedpipingterm.htm Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 19:56
  • Yeah. Though it doesn't mention that multiply-nested NPs can be pied-piped, e.g, The reports, the height of the lettering on the covers of which is specified by law, ... Ross's dissertation is pretty interesting to read, if only for the examples. Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 20:00
  • LOL 23 MB of it -- I'm waiting for the download to complete. Meanwhile, I also found grammar.about.com/od/basicsentencegrammar/a/buildappositive.htm helpful, where "appositive" is yet another name for these relatives. Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 20:04
  • Yeah, it's scanned. There isn't a text version, alas. Still, it launched generative linguistics in the late 60s; Chomsky was all theory, but Ross got into the nitty-gritty. Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 20:26

See this question for some discussion of ambiguity in legal documents and why they beat some subjects to death: Why does legal English continue to remain archaic?

In your one-sentence example, sure, it doesn't appear to add anything. But imagine a slightly more complex example. Say:

Upon delivery, funds will be deposited by Acme Company into the account designated by Beta Company, which shall collect any interest accrued on such funds until they are dispersed in accordance with paragraph 4.3.

So which company is "which", Acme or Beta? A lawyer would want to say "which Acme Company ..." (or Beta, as the case may be) to eliminate the ambiguity.

In many cases the "which" that we are referring to would be obvious to any reasonable and logical person. But when you are involved in a lawsuit, the goal of a lawyer is not to be reasonable and logical but to get the best possible interpretation for his client. Hence, lawyers must bend over backwards to spell everything out six different ways.


I would describe it as a noun phrase comprising the noun folder and the determiner which.

The way you have written the first version, without commas, suggests that which is missing from the principal's office is an integrated relative clause, meaning that there may have been other folders in the principal's office, and possibly elsewhere, and that they did not contain the answers to today’s exam. With commas - The folder, which is missing from the principal's office, contained the answers to today's exam - the clause between the commas becomes a supplementary relative clause and suggests there is only one folder in the case.

  • Thanks @BarrieEngland, but your comments and answers have helped me adjust my question. See updated question -- no longer about grammatical description, but about what the legal writer thinks s/he's adding. Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 19:24
  • @talkaboutquality: Lawyers don't like to leave anything open to doubt - other than when it suits them to do so. The repetition of 'folder' removes any possibility that 'which' could refer to anything else. But perhaps you should ask a lawyer. Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 19:34

I think you may be exaggerating slightly the peculiarities of legal English. The normal phrasing is, for example "This complaint is about a folder, which folder went missing on Tuesday last..." So which is natural and normal; it's folder that is unnecessary padding/zealous for clarity, as you prefer. The difference from your example is the difference between 'the folder which went missing' and 'the folder, which went missing,' ; minute, but possibly important.

Edit: the answer to your edited question is 'None directly, but it is a good habit to get into (for legal documents only).' Consider The folder in the principal's office, which went missing.... Strictly speaking, that means the office went missing, so which folder is required. (No reasonable person would be in doubt, but laws and lawyers, as Jay pointed out, can't rely on being reasonable.) In Jay's example, omitting a word could cost a lot of money; in mine it's almost certainly unimportant; in yours it makes no difference. So it's easier and safer to get into the habit of putting the extra word in every time.

  • The last point concerns the difference between an integrated and a supplementary relative clause, which I imagine could have important legal consequences. Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 19:08
  • @BarrieEngland -- "integrated" but, typos aside, can you say more? Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 19:11
  • @TimLymington, thanks for the correction. Now I see it's the "folder" which is extra. So let's say the speaker thinks it adds clarity -- what clarity is it adding? Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 19:11
  • @talkaboutquality: I've expanded my answer. Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 19:21

English law grew up in the times of the Plantagenet Kings when the language of the court was French and/or Latin. After a couple of hundred years, English started to be used in legal documents. The writers of legal documents were not always sure whether there was a slight difference in the meaning of the various words available to them so they covered themselves, and their clients / the state, by using two or three words from different roots. E.g. 'Mr. X shall not [do something] in any way, shape or form'. Shape comes from a northern European root, form comes from Latin, but they mean exactly the same. (Way has a different meaning.)


On the repetition of antecedents after "which," it is sometimes helpful in more complex sentences as are found in academic writing. Here is an example that is similar to the "Acme" or "Beta" example above, from an article on Islamic holy days:

"Contemporary Salafi groups regard this holiday as an unwarranted or innovative practice, and so condemn its celebration, which is in line with their general condemnation of birthdays and their aversion to venerating the Prophet, all of which practices they regard as types of idolatry."

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