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Is the sentence below grammatically correct? Is it correct to say “below which was a faint scar” or is it too vague we are talking about chin. Does “which” always refer to the word just before it?

"He was a sturdy man in his sixties with a white beard grown from his sideburns to his chin below which was a faint scar."

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Does “which” always refer to the word just before it?

I'll assume you mean the word “which” in the context of a phrase such as “below which” or “above which” (not in contexts such as “Which one of you ate the cookie?”). The answer to that question is NO. The word “which” can refer to any preceding noun, not just the one immediately before the “which”, although your sentence might be confusing to a reader if you put a lot of material in between the “which” and the noun it alludes to. For example:

"On an old wooden chair, I saw a sturdy man in his sixties with a white beard grown from his sideburns to his chin, in the lap of which was purring cat."

By process of elimination, we know that chairs, beards, sideburns, and chins do not have laps, so the “in the lap of which” here must refer to the lap of the sturdy man in his sixties. However, I can make the sentence a little bit more ambiguous:

"On an old wooden chair, I saw a sturdy man in his sixties with a white beard grown from his sideburns to his chin, the leg of which was badly scratched."

In this case, sturdy men and old wooden chairs could both have scratched legs – particularly if there is a cat around! As a reader, I would probably assume that the man's leg was scratched, since that is the closest noun. Syntactically, both interpretations could be valid. If the author is talking about the chair leg, though, I'd suggest a restructuring of the sentence:

"On an old wooden chair, the leg of which was badly scratched, I saw a sturdy man in his sixties with a white beard grown from his sideburns to his chin."

That seems clearer and easier to read.

Back to your sentence:

"He was a sturdy man in his sixties with a white beard grown from his sideburns to his chin below which was a faint scar."

I'd guess that the scar here is either below the beard or below the chin. Since beards generally grow on chins, the difference is probably trivial, but we can change the words some to arrange a more ambiguous sentence:

"It was a deserted apartment with a crack in the wall that ran down from the ceiling to the floor, upon which the detective noticed tiny drops of blood."

Where was the blood? On the wall? Along the crack? On the floor? There's a bit of a mystery going on here! I think any of those interpretations could be considered valid, depending on how we parse the sentence:

a crack in the wall (that ran from the ceiling to the floor), upon which the detective noticed blood

a crack (in the wall that ran from the ceiling to the floor), upon which the detective noticed blood

a crack in the wall that ran from the ceiling to the floor, upon which the detective noticed blood

  • "As a reader, I would probably assume that the man's leg was scratched, since that is the closest noun. Syntactically, both interpretations could be valid." That's not technically true. When talking about people, the word "whom" is supposed to be used instead of "which," but it seems like "whom" is falling out of vernacular. Therefore if I were to read the sentence, I would be confident in assuming that the author was referring to the chair's leg. – Crazy Eyes Sep 16 '15 at 21:16
  • @CrazyEyes - I almost brought up the "which/whom" aspect of that example, but figured my answer was getting long enough. Nonetheless, I'm glad you added it as a caveat. Nice catch. – J.R. Sep 16 '15 at 21:33
  • I would revise it to: "It was a deserted apartment with a crack in the wall that ran down from the ceiling to the floor, a crack upon which the detective noticed tiny drops of blood." But I guess although the meaning is conveyed more clearly, the use of crack a second time is redundant. So is there another way to revise the example you said? – F. Walker Sep 17 '15 at 0:28
  • @F.Walker - You can always make it more clear. One strategy would be to use two sentences instead of one: "It was a deserted apartment with a crack in the wall that ran from the ceiling to the floor. The detective noticed tiny drops of blood along the crack." However, this question isn't about the best way to convey the sentiment, it's about using the word which with a preposition. – J.R. Sep 17 '15 at 0:42
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You need a subject when you use "which", otherwise it sounds like it was taken out of the context.

It sounds too vague when you are talking about anything without pointing to something.

  • So which is the case for this particular sentence? – J.R. Sep 16 '15 at 9:31
  • You can't use it like that, out of the context. Let me give you an example: "My back hurts" is correct, "My back is hurting" is not correct because you expect a reason for this. One would say "My back is hurting from that extended hike i took yesterday" – V2k Sep 16 '15 at 9:36
  • You'll want to be careful leaving advice like that to learners. It's just plain wrong. There is nothing wrong with, "My back is hurting." And I'm still confused about what's "out of context" with this sentence: He was a sturdy man in his sixties with a white beard grown from his sideburns to his chin below which was a faint scar. – J.R. Sep 16 '15 at 9:43
  • he asked if it's ok to use “below which was a faint scar” which is not. The whole sentence is ok. – V2k Sep 16 '15 at 10:27
  • I don't think the question intended to ask if "“below which was a faint scar” is okay as a complete sentence. I think the question is asking if that wording is acceptable in the context provided. – J.R. Sep 16 '15 at 11:33

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