The scholarly pretentiousness of “the way in which”

The way in which. The way in which. The way in which…

I hear this turn of phrase so often. It’s what academics often say when they mean “the way that x.” There is often, as far as I can tell, not much difference in meaning between saying “the way that x” and “the way in which x,” except that the latter is a much more academic usage. The way that(in which) academics use this expression bothers me. It seems gratuitous. It seems wordy. It creates barriers to communication with non-academics that don’t have to be there.

In case anyone’s not sure that “the way in which” is a specifically academic usage, I’ve compiled some handy evidence from Google that clearly shows “the way in which” to be more scholarly than popular. On regular Google, “the way in which” returns 180 million results, versus 839 million for “the way that.” In other words, in the general Google corpus, “the way that” is about 4.66 times more frequent than “the way in which.” On Google Scholar, on the other hand, there are about 2,420,000 hits for “the way in which,” versus 1,080,000 for “the way that.” So among scholars, on the contrary, “the way in which” is 2.24 times more frequent than “the way that.” Or put otherwise, scholars use “the way in which” about 69% of the time, versus only about 17% of the time for the general population.*

Let’s take some examples of this usage, drawing at random from the academic articles on my computer.

From Merle Curti’s 1955 “Intellectuals and Other People,” an interesting analysis of American anti-intellectualism: “Some intellectuals, however, have continued to invite resentment by the way in which they hold their learning.” Curti could have said the same thing, as far as I can tell, by writing “… continued to invite resentment by the way that they hold their learning,” or even “continued to invite resentment by the way they hold their learning.” Admittedly, it’s less formal if we omit the relative pronoun, but then, questioning formal language is precisely what we’re here to do.
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