Relative Pronouns on ACT English can cause a lot of confusion. Is it the boy who cried wolf or the boy whom cried wolf? All’s well that ends well or all’s well which ends well?
Frequently, we make a mistake of thinking that we need the fancier pronouns. However, more often than not, the more familiar pronouns suffice.
Generally, this rule applies on ACT English as well, but we will discuss all the relative pronoun rules you need to know as well as special cases that may trick you.
As a rule of thumb, remember “who” is for people, “where” is for places, “which” is for things.
Like all pronouns, relative pronouns on ACT English must agree with the noun they are replacing. Each relative pronoun can only be used to refer to a specific type of thing. In regular every-day speech, we tend to use pronouns inaccurately so the errors you will encounter on the ACT English section may not be readily obvious to you. Here is a list of what each relative pronoun refers 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
Because more than one pronoun can work for many situations, for example, “the place that” and “the place where” are equally correct, you should use the process of elimination to narrow down the answer choices on ACT English.
Another main issue to be aware of in questions with relative pronouns on ACT English is whether the sentence is a run-on or a fragment. Relative pronouns introduce dependent clauses: they are not interchangeable with personal pronouns such as “she” and “they” or conjunctions such as “so” and “but.”
Correct: I texted my friend, who is going on vacation today.
Incorrect: I texted my friend, she is going on vacation today. (comma splice)
Incorrect: I texted my friend, and is going on vacation today. (fragment)
To make sure that the sentence is structured correctly, you have to pick the correct type of pronoun or conjunction.
Let’s take a look at how ACT English tests relative pronouns.
First, we need to determine if anything is wrong with the original sentence. The problem is that “however” cannot be punctuated with only commas when used to connect two independent clauses which are: “Conan Doyle had the original photographic plates examined by experts” and “they found no evidence of double exposures.” We can eliminate choice F.
Choice J can be eliminated because replacing the underlined portion with “they” creates a comma splice. Choices G and H both have relative pronouns which can correctly turn the second part of the sentence into a dependent clause, but we are looking for a relative pronoun that describes “experts.” “Which” is a relative pronoun that describes nouns other than people and “who” is a relative pronoun that is used for people. The correct answer is G.
On the ACT, there are three pronoun pairs that cause the most confusion and mistakes on relative pronoun questions. They are: who and whom, which and that, and where and in which. Let’s talk about each one in more detail.
Of the three pairs, who vs. whom comes up the most frequently on the ACT. The difference between them is that “who” is a subject pronoun, meaning that it is the thing doing the verb, and “whom” is an object pronoun, meaning that it is the thing that the verb is being done to. For more information about subject and object pronouns, see our article on pronoun case.
The good news is that you don’t really have to understand the differences between “who” and “whom” in order to answer most ACT English questions about them. Use the guidelines below to help you determine the correct answer on questions dealing with “who” and “whom.”
Always use “who” before a verb.
Incorrect: Last month, I went to see a movie with my friend, whom lives in Los Angeles.
Correct: Last month, I went to see a movie with my friend, who lives in Los Angeles.
Always use “whom” after a preposition
Incorrect: She knew very little about a person with who she had promised to spend the summer.
Correct: She knew very little about a person with whom she had promised to spend the summer.
These rules should help you answer most of who vs. whom questions on the ACT; however, if you are unsure whether you are using one of these pronouns correctly, try swapping it for a personal pronoun of the same case (who à he, she, they; whom à him, her, them). If the sentence makes sense, the pronoun is correct. If not, test the other case. (In order to do this, you will have to reorder the words in the sentence).
Joyce, the girl whom got the job, is looking forward to the challenge.
In this example, “whom” comes right before a verb “got” which should immediately signal that the correct possessive pronoun should be “who,” but let’s check.
Joyce got the job à She got the job.
“She” is a subject pronoun that can be replaced with a relative pronoun “who,” so the correct sentence is:
Joyce, the girl who got the job, is looking forward to the challenge.
What about the case where “who/whom” does not follow a verb or a preposition?
The popular girl, who everyone knows, graduated from high school.
Let’s rephrase a part of this sentence and replace “who” with a personal pronoun “she.”
Who everyone knows à She everyone knows
Always use “whom” after a preposition (cont’d)
This version doesn’t make sense, but let’s think about what it is trying to express – that everyone knows the girl. So the pronoun actually belongs at the end of the clause.
Incorrect: Everyone knows she.
Correct: Everyone knows her.
Since “her” is correct here, we need to use relative pronoun “whom” in the original sentence.
The popular girl, whom everyone knows, graduated from high school.
If you get stuck, this trick can help you differentiate between “who” and “whom” on the ACT, but you shouldn’t need it most of the time especially because “who” is correct in the majority of cases. So, when in doubt and running out of time, choose “who.”
Looking at the answer choices, we can immediately tell that this is a question about who vs. whom. The pronoun “whom” is placed immediately before a verb “had,” so, by definition, we know that the correct pronoun is “who.” You would say “they had died” not “them had died.” This means that A is wrong and the correct answer is B.
C and D might be tempting, but they are incorrect. “Who they” is redundant since “they” refers to relatives and friends already mentioned in the text. “Of whom” may sound correct because it places “whom” after a preposition “of,” but this option makes the sentence incorrect in context. If the sentence read “relatives and friends of whom had died,” who is “whom” referring to? It can no longer be relatives and friends, so it is incorrect.
The difference between “which” and “that” is also a source of confusion for many students. The grammatical explanation is that “which” introduces a non-essential clause, meaning that it doesn’t define the noun it is describing, and “that” introduces an essential clause, meaning that it clarifies exactly which noun the sentence is about. (If you need to refresh your knowledge about essential and non-essential clauses, read our article about commas.)
My bike that has a broken seat is in the garage.
My bike, which has a broken seat, is in the garage.
Both of these sentences are correct.
In the first sentence, the word “that” talks specifically about a bike with a broken seat. The sentence implies that the speaker has at least one other bike. If you took out “that has a broken seat” the meaning of the sentence would change because the readers will no longer understand the implication that the speaker has more than one bike.
In the second sentence, the clause “which has a broken seat” is simply a description of the bike in the garage. Taking this clause out will not change the meaning of the sentence.
Which vs. That (cont’d)
Let’s look at a “which” example:
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.
In this sentence, the word “which” defines each of the methods by which “we may learn wisdom.” If we took out all of the “which” clauses, the sentence would still make sense and read:
By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection; second, by imitation; and third, by experience.
Let’s look at a “that” example:
To be yourself in the world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
In this sentence, the word “that” defines the subject “the world” and is essential to the meaning of the sentence. If we take out the clause “that is constantly trying to make you something else,” the sentence would still be grammatically correct, but it would lose its intended meaning.
To be yourself in the is the greatest accomplishment.
On the ACT English, you should remember that “which” is always paired with a comma and “that” never is. You will most likely not be asked to choose between “which” and “that” unless one is improperly punctuated.
Looking at the answer choices, we can immediately tell that this is a relative pronoun question. The first step is to determine what this sentence is talking about. Here, the subject of the sentence is “my parents.” If you recognize that “whom” is followed by a verb – great job! By definition, this means that the correct relative pronoun is “who.”
If not, don’t worry. Let’s replace “my parents” with a subject pronoun “they.” The sentence can be rephrased as “they were still in touch.” The subject pronoun “they” corresponds to relative pronoun “who,” so, again, B is the correct choice.
“Where” is actually the most commonly misused pronoun in the spoken language. The word “Where” can only be used to refer to a place. The following examples may “sound” fine, but they are incorrect.
Did you get to the chapter where the hero kills the dragon?
The story takes place in the future, where robots will be common.
When talking about thing that happen in books, movies, and other media, you must use “in which.” For time periods, you can use “in which” or “when.”
Did you get to the chapter in which the hero kills the dragon?
The story takes place in the future when robots will be common.
Although “in which” can be interchangeable “where” and “when” in some situations, you will not be asked to choose between those on the ACT English.
You may, however, see other prepositions paired with “which,” e.g. “for which,” “into which.” In these cases, make sure the preposition makes sense.
Incorrect: The tall castle has a small window, into which Rapunzel climbs out.
Correct: The tall castle has a small window, from which Rapunzel climbs out.
Let’s look at a real ACT example.
Looking at the answer choices, it is clear that we must choose between relative pronouns on ACT English. The first step is to determine what the pronoun refers to. In this case it is “claim.” We can rule out choice B “where” because “claim” is not a place. We can rule out choice C because “which” must be paired with a comma and there isn’t one here. That leaves choices A “that” and D “in which.” Both of these could be correct, but in this case, “that” is the correct word. The sentence is about a claim that consists of an idea that the closing created a negative learning environment. This idea is not “in” the claim, it is the claim. The correct answer is A.
We have covered a lot of information about relative pronouns and their common mistakes on ACT English. Let’s summarize the most important concepts.
- A relative pronoun (like any other type of pronoun) must have a clear antecedent.
- Relative pronouns introduce dependent clauses
- Use “who” before a verb
- Use “whom” after a preposition
- Never place a comma around “that”
- Always place a comma before “which”
- “Who” is for people; “Where” is for places; “Which” is for things
- More than one pronoun can achieve a grammatical purpose. Use process of elimination to rule out the choices that don’t work in context.
- Make sure you are not creating a comma splice or a fragment
- When in doubt, choose “who” and “that”
Congratulations on taking time to improve your ACT English score. Your efforts are sure to pay off.
If you need a refresher on other types of pronouns and common errors associated with them, read our articles about pronoun agreement and pronoun case.
Make sure you are familiar with what the ACT actually covers and 5 critical concepts you must know to ace the ACT English. Also, review our articles on most frequently tested concepts such as commas and subject-verb agreement.
Do you have a reliable study plan? If not, check out our complete plan to studying for the ACT and take a practice test.
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