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The Freshman 15 Writing Rules: The "Whichcraft" of Adjective Clauses

Posted in Test Prep on October 26, 2010 by

We here at Knewton are feeling benevolent, so we have decided that it’s high time to roll out another of our Freshman 15 Writing Rules. We have heard your cries and felt your hunger, and in our infinite wisdom and mercy, we respond with a new grammar tip. Your prayers have been answered. The long wait is over.

Last time, we learned how to be a pro at pronouns. This week, we will examine an especially tricky rule concerning adjective clauses. This is another rule that is broken regularly in speech and writing, making related errors incredibly difficult to spot with an untrained eye.

So without further ado, we give you:

Rule 7. An adjective clause must describe the noun right before it

An adjective clause begins with the pronoun “which,” “that,” “who,” “whose,” or “whom” and describes a specific noun that must immediately precede the clause. If the adjective clause describes a different noun in the sentence or if there is no specific noun logically described, the clause is not correctly placed. Just as an adjective must describe a noun, so an adjective clause must also describe a noun.

For example, the sentence “A truck is speeding down the street that is the same color as a banana” is incorrect and should be written as “A truck that is the same color as a banana is speeding down the street.” The truck, not the street, is logically described as the same color as a banana.

In real life, the word “which” is frequently used to modify a general idea or an action hinted at by the preceding clause, but on the SAT, this is incorrect! When “which” introduces an adjective clause, make sure that the clause IMMEDIATELY follows the noun it modifies. If the clause introduced by “which” describes an abstract idea rather than a specific noun in the sentence, you’ve found a modifier error.

For example, “I drink a glass of warm milk, wash my face, and write in my journal every night before bed, which helps me fall asleep” is not correct because the clause beginning with which does not describe a single noun within the sentence. What noun, specifically, helps me fall asleep? The clause does not logically describe the noun, bed, that comes before it, and the idea that this routine helps me fall asleep cannot be described by the adjective clause.

Let’s take a stab at a revision: “Every night before bed, my routine, which helps me fall asleep, involves drinking a glass of warm milk, washing my face, and writing in my journal.” This sentence correctly uses the adjective clause beginning with which to describe the noun routine, and the verb helps agrees with the noun that is described, routine.

There is one exception to this rule about adjective clauses. When a noun followed by a prepositional phrase is described by an adjective clause, the clause can describe either the first noun or the noun after the preposition.

  • The presents for the party, which starts in three hours, have not been wrapped.
  • The presents for the party, which were purchased from the corner store, have not been wrapped.

Both sentences are correct. In the first, the clause which starts in three hours clearly describes the party. The verb is agrees with the singular noun described. In the second clause, which were purchased from the corner store clearly describes presents, and the verb were properly agrees with the plural noun described.

Precision is power. Make sure that each part of the sentences on the writing section of the SAT has a specific purpose and that it executes its purpose as clearly and concisely as possible. A sentence will almost never hint at an idea or refer to an entity that is not already present in the sentence. The clauses should fit together like a tightly woven web. Used correctly, an adjective clause, which must immediately follow the noun it describes, can serve as one of the web’s strongest threads.