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Relative Pronouns on SAT Writing: Which vs. That and More

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Jul 24, 2015 8:00:00 AM

SAT Writing



You may not have heard of relative pronouns, but we use them everyday. “Who,” “which,” “that,” where,” and “when” are all examples of relative pronouns.

Though the name may make it seem like these words have something to do with your great uncle Cecil, they actually introduce related information that describes a noun

Relative pronouns aren’t the most common grammar concept tested on the SAT Writing section (or even the most common type of pronoun!), but you will see them on the test. Confusingly, they're mostly tested in conjunction with other topics like pronoun agreement and fragments and run-ons.

To make sure you’re prepared for any kind of relative pronoun question the SAT writers throw at you, I’ll go over the following key ideas:

  • Definitions of Relative Pronouns
  • Common Usage Errors on Identifying Sentence Errors
  • Unclear Antecedents on Improving Sentences
  • Fragments and Run-ons on Improving Sentences
  • Key SAT Strategies for Relative Pronouns


Relative Pronoun Definitions

Like all pronouns, relative pronouns must agree with the noun they're replacing. Each relative pronoun can only be used to refer to a specific type of thing: you wouldn't talk about the "the pencil who" or "the teacher when." We often use relative pronouns imprecisely, however, so these errors may not always be so obvious.

First, let's review what each relative pronoun can correctly be used to refer to:

  • Who and whom — people only
  • When — specific times or time periods only
  • Where — places only
  • Which — any noun other than a person  
  • That — any noun
  • Whose — possessive, can be used for people or things

Note that for many situations, more than one relative pronoun can work. For example, "the student who" and "the student that" are equally correct. Because of this flexibility, it can be hard to reliably pick out exactly which pronoun is correct, so you should focus on using process of elimination to narrow down the choices on SAT Writing questions.


Identifying Sentence Errors: Common Usage Errors

On Identifying Sentence Errors questions, relative pronoun issues generally involve misused words. These errors aren't especially common, but when you see a relative pronoun underlined you should check to make sure it agrees with the noun it's replacing.

Incorrect: The golden retriever, when was a puppy, loved to play fetch.

Correct: The golden retriever, which was a puppy, loved to play fetch.

This example is pretty simple—a golden retriever isn't a time, so it can't be referred to as "when." Some relative pronoun errors will be equally obvious, but there are a few trickier cases that appear on the SAT Writing section. Let's go through them one at a time.




Who/Whom vs. Which

First of all, it's important to note that, on the SAT, you won't ever be tested on the difference between "who" and "whom." (If you're curious about what it is, you can take a look at our breakdown of the topic in the ACT relative pronouns post.)

You may, however, be tested on who/whom vs. which. The key here is that while "who," "whom," and "that" can all be used to refer to people, "which" can't.

Incorrect: The acclaimed author, which has written 13 novels, will be speaking at the university tonight.

Correct: The acclaimed author, who has written 13 novels, will be speaking at the university tonight.


Which vs. That

The difference between which and that is a source of great confusion for many students, but it doesn't need to be.

The grammatical explanation is that "which" introduces a non-essential clause, meaning that it doesn't define the noun it's describing, while "that" introduces an essential clause, meaning that it clarifies exactly which noun the sentence is about. For example, the following two sentences are both correct:

My house, which I bought recently, is next to a lake.

The house that I bought recently is next to a lake.

In the first sentence the relative clause "which I bought recently" is further describing "my house." In the second, the clause "that I bought recently" is specifying which house the sentence is about.

On the SAT, you really only need to remember that "which" is always paired with a comma and "that" never is. You generally won't be asked to choose between "which" and "that" unless one of them is incorrectly punctuated. 


Where vs. In Which

"Where" is probably the most commonly misused relative pronoun. In spoken English, we routinely use it to describe the time or point at which something occurred, but "where" can only be used to refer to a place.

To describe media like books, movies, or music, use "in which" instead.

Incorrect: Didn't you love the part of The Avengers where the Hulk punches Loki?

Correct: Didn't you love the part of The Avengers in which the Hulk punches Loki?

The "part of the Avengers" isn't an actual place, so "in which," rather than "where," is the correct construction.

Though it may sound weird, "in which" is usually correct when it appears


Real SAT Example

Let's walk through an example from an official SAT Writing section.


Let's start by reading the sentence and seeing if anything jumps out as wrong. It sounds a bit weird, but there are no obvious errors.

Next, we'll go through each underlined portion to check it for errors. Since verb and pronoun errors are the most common, let's start by checking C, "turned to," for errors. The three possible issues here are subject-verb agreement, verb form, and idiomatic usage (of "to"), but the verb is appropriately conjugated and the preposition is correct. C has no error and can be ruled out.

Since pronoun errors are also common, let's move on to B, which includes the relative pronoun "when." This usage seems wrong—"significance" isn't a time period—but let's think about what it's actually describing. The point is that artists became interested in Greek mythology during the nineteenth century. "When" is in fact correct, and its antecedent is the "nineteenth century." We can rule out B.

A and D are both prepositions, so the primary issue to check for is idiomatic usage. Both are used correctly, so both answers can be eliminated.

We are left with only E, no error, which is the correct choice.

Make sure you know the proper use for each relative pronoun—the fact that one seems weird doesn't make it wrong.


body_unclear-1.jpgMake sure that your relative pronouns are clear, unlike this photograph. (Image credit: Bruce Aldridge, via Flickr, under CC BY-NC 2.0)


Improving Sentences: Unclear Antecedents

When speaking, you probably use the relative pronouns "which" and "that" without making it explicit what they're referring to. 

My little brother is always poking me with sticks, which I find annoying. 

This construction makes sense and is perfectly acceptable in spoken English, but it's absolutely incorrect on the SAT. 

What is "which" referring to? I don't find the sticks annoying, I find the fact my brother is poking me with them annoying. But there's no noun antecedent that makes that idea explicit. We have to rewrite this sentence to eliminate the unclear antecedent:

My little brother is always poking me with sticks; I find this habit annoying. 

By adding a noun, we make it clear what I'm annoyed by. Remember that this, that, and which must have clear noun antecedents, just like any other pronoun. 

One of the most common examples of this type of error is the construction "do that":

My best friend Selena always turns the lights off when she leaves a room. She does that in order to help the environment.

"That" is referring to Selena's practice of turning off the lights, but there's no noun in the sentence that can serve as an antecedent. To fix this sentence, simply replace "that" with "so":

My best friend Selena always turns the lights off when she leaves a room. She does so in order to help the environment.

On the SAT, you must make sure that any underlined relative pronoun has a clear noun antecedent. Let's take a look at a question from an official SAT.


Since there's a relative pronoun, "which," in the underlined portion of the sentence, we need to check whether it is appropriately located next to an explicit noun antecedent. The structure implies that the antecedent is "ocean," but that doesn't make much sense, given that it's described as lasting for several days.

What the sentence is actually trying to say is that the contamination lasted for several days, but that's not a noun in the sentence. As such, we can rule out A and B (which repeats the same error with "that" instead of "which").

Choice C creates a comma splice and D misuses "while" (since there's no contrast), so we can eliminate both of them as well. 

This leaves only E, which replaces the unclear relative pronoun with the noun "contamination." E is the correct answer.




Improving Sentences: Fragments and Run-ons

The other type of error you must check for when an Improving Sentences question has a relative pronoun in the underlined section is a sentence structure issue. Relative pronouns are often used to hide fragments (incomplete ideas masquerading as sentences) and run-ons (multiple complete ideas smushed together without proper punctuation).

Let's go through these one at a time, starting with fragments (and if you want to go more in depth on this topic, check out our complete guide to run-ons and fragments on SAT Writing, coming soon).



Fragments involving relative pronouns generally lack a main verb and instead only have a verb in the relative clause.

Leaving work early to start her vacation, Lauren, who was traveling to Guatemala.

These constructions can be confusing because they seem to have both a subject and a verb. However, "was traveling" isn't part of the main clause—it isn't describing what "Lauren" is doing, but rather what "who" is doing. Although those words are referring to the same person (Lauren), they're grammatically dstinct.

The correct version of the sentence cuts out the relative pronoun:

Leaving work early to start her vacation, Lauren was traveling to Guatemala.

This type of error is fairly common, so whenever you see a relative pronoun in the underlined section, make sure to check whether the sentence is actually a fragment.



Although less common, you may also see relative pronouns used to disguise a run-on, either by adding a relative clause to two complete thoughts or by starting an independent clause with "that" + a noun to make it look like a relative clause.

Shawn went to the library, which is downtown, it didn't have the book he wanted.

Shawn went to the library, that branch didn't have the book he wanted.

To spot these errors, watch for long sentences that include a relative clause and "that" or "this" immediately after a comma.

Also keep in mind that in some cases you will need to fix a run-ons by adding a relative pronoun.

Incorrect: The flock of seagulls made loud cawing noises, they were annoying.

Correct: The flock of seagulls made loud cawing noises, which were annoying.


Real SAT Writing Practice Question

Let's take a look at an example of this type of question from an official SAT.


The underlined portion of the sentence includes a relative pronoun, "that," so we need to start by checking whether the pronoun has a clear antecedent and whether the sentence is a fragment.

"That" refers to "medical insurance coverage," so there's no unclear antecedent issue.

However, the sentence is a fragment, since it consists only of a noun "medical insurance coverage," and two relative clauses connected by a connected by a conjunction, "that requires high monthly premiums" and "that is beyond the financial means of many people." As such, we can rule out choice A.

B is also a fragment. "It is beyond the financial means of many people" is an independent clause, but "medical insurance coverage that requires high monthly premiums" isn't. Since they're connected by the coordinating conjunction "and" both halves of the sentence would need to be independent clauses for it to be correct.

C and D both include subject-verb agreement errors: the subject "medical insurance coverage" is a singular noun while the main verb "are" is plural.

This process leaves only E, if we plug this choice into the sentence we can see that it corrects the run-on without creating any other issues:

Medical insurance coverage that requires high monthly premiums is beyond the financial means of many people.

There's now both a subject, "medical insurance coverage," and a correctly conjugated main verb, "is." The relative clause "that requires high monthly premiums" appropriately modifies the subject. E is the correct answer.



Image credit: Alan Levine, via Flickr, under CC BY 2.0


SAT Writing Strategies for Relative Pronouns

Now that we've covered the main ways that relative pronouns will appear on the SAT Writing section, let's review the key strategies for both Identifying Sentence Errors and Improving Sentences.

What to watch for:

  • On Identifying Sentence Errors, underlined relative pronouns
  • On Improving Sentences, a relative clause that's underlined and "that" or "which" underlined

Key concepts:

  • Relative pronouns introduce dependent clauses.
  • "Which" can’t refer to people.
  • Preposition + "which" is a perfectly acceptable construction.
  • "Where" can only be used to refer to places.
  • "That" and "which" require noun antecedents.
  • A noun with only a relative clause is a fragment.

Helpful SAT Writing strategies:

  • You won’t be tested on "who" vs. "whom," so focus on determining whether the pronoun is correctly referring to a person.
  • "Do that" is generally wrong and should be replaced with "do so."
  • Remember that even if a sentence isn't phrased the way you would say it, it can still be correct.
  • When dealing with run-ons, you can often fix them by replacing a subject pronoun (like "he" or "they") with a relative pronoun.


Test Your Knowledge!

I've created some realistic SAT Writing practice questions for you to practice your new knowledge of relative pronouns. Post any questions in the comments!


1. Though (A) the doctor was hopeful she (B) could help her patient, which (C) was gravely wounded, there was a chance the man’s leg would have to be amputated. No error. (E)


2. I wanted to (A) visit my grandmother last month, but because of (B) the hurricane, it was (C) impossible to do that (D). No error. (E)


3. Because the city is running low on funds, which means the mayor will be forced to take a pay cut.

A. funds, which means

B. funds, that means

C. funds, 

D. funds, and

E. funds; this means


4. My lab partner is chronically late, which is very annoying for me.

A. late, which is very annoying for me.

B. late; this habit annoys me.

C. late, which annoys me. 

D. late, that is very annoying for me.

E. late, which I am annoyed by.

Answers: 1. C, 2. D, 3. C, 4. B


What's Next?

Make sure to check out our posts on the other key pronoun topics: pronoun agreement and pronoun case.

It's vital to understand overall test strategies as well as specific grammar rules, so consider taking a look at our posts on the secret to SAT writing and the 11 strategies you must use to get a perfect score on the SAT Writing.

If you're not taking the SAT until next year, make sure you know what to expect from the new version of the test.


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Alex Heimbach
About the Author

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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