Bonnie Trenga, guest-writing for the Grammar Girl podcast, recently asserted that the standalone use of a which clause is acceptable when the author is attempting to slow things down and create emphasis. The example she provides is this:
I stepped onto the train. Which had finally arrived.
While I’m not about imply that this is wrong (as a novelist, I use sentence fragments all the time for a variety of reasons), I must say that I find this particular use of a sentence fragment to be ugly and overstated. Sure, the message is conveyed effectively by allowing the which clause to stand alone: The speaker has been waiting for the train for a long time. But I would contend that there are more effective, more elegant ways of conveying this idea, including altering the actual dialogue, using italicizes or capital letters, or even utilizing the suggestion of body language in the speaker to convey his or her impatience or frustration.
Like I said, it’s not wrong to use a sentence like this in your fiction (though it would certainly be incorrect in formal writing), but just because something isn’t wrong doesn’t always make it right.
In this case, I believe that the standalone which clause hits the reader over the head like a sledgehammer, overstating the speaker’s position and sounding amateurish. It’s the kind of writing I would expect to see from my students, most of whom do not understand the use of subtlety at this point in their writing careers.
But I also said the clause looked ugly, standing there all alone, and I meant it. I believe there’s an indefinable aesthetic to the written word, an inherent understanding of what looks right and what doesn’t, though I’ll also admit that this can differ from writer to writer. For me, a sentence ending with the word with is ugly. Yes, there was also a time when it was also considered incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition, but those days are long gone and I am more than willing to end a sentence with a preposition, especially in dialogue, but never with the word with.
It just feels wrong.
The following is a sentence that I am currently wrangling with in my manuscript for THE CHICKEN SHACK.
For years, kids would collect these lost balls and sell back to the course at a quarter each, for use at the driving range or for resale as a refurbished ball if it had been especially costly to begin with.
See the with at the end?
I hate it. Not because it’s grammatically wrong or structurally problematic. Not because it makes the sentence awkward or incomprehensible. It just doesn’t look right. The aesthetic of the sentence is completely wrong.
Am I crazy? Is this belief in the appearance of a sentence just something in my head? Let me know.
Either way, you won’t ever catch me using a which clause on its own, as Bonnie Trenga suggests is fine.
And by the time THE CHICKEN SHACK has an official title and can be found in your local bookstore, the sentence above dealing with the golf balls will surely have changed as well.