From a discussion at Lang-8:

Kim and I ran fast as we could, but we missed the bus, which made us late for school.

I believe the sentence's use of the relative clause to be okay: the relative pronoun which refers to the whole preceding clause "but we missed the bus".

But both the author of the post and one other non-native English speaker believe this use of which to be erroneous, since in their view the antecedent is bus: "the bus made us late for school."

Gleb quoted a SAT preparation course in which the following use of which is apparently described as erroneous:

"Marylin and I ran as fast as we could, but we missed our train, which(C) made us late for work."
... Which is a pronoun, and needs a noun as its antecedent. The only available noun is train, but that doesn't make sense ... So there is your error, choice C.

Is that really so? In Michael Swan's PEU, topic 494.9 says that which can relate to the whole of a preceding clause. I'm a bit baffled. Is this a typo in the SAT course, or am I missing some point?

  • 1
    No offense to anyone. I said "sloppiness" because I thought the original assertion came from native speakers and teachers. Now I see it was mostly non-native speakers and learners.
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 12:04
  • 2
    It wasn't a typo. It was an outright error.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 13:45
  • 19
    Maybe this is too opinion based, but here goes: any native English speaker would consider this use of which completely unobjectionable, and would not think there was any grammatical error. Honestly, I do not know what is going through the minds of people who try to convince learners of English (or SAT students) that completely normal usage is "wrong". Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 15:05
  • 4
    It is unquestionably, and completely, grammatical. :) -- info in the 2002 CGEL, page 1356 [18.i] "We called in to see Sue's parents, which made us rather late."
    – F.E.
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 2:42
  • 1
    . . . Also, in 2002 CGEL, page 1060 [5], and bottom paragraph on page 1061. (Topic is "supplementary relatives".)
    – F.E.
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 2:46

5 Answers 5


You are correct, Copperkettle. Which can refer to the fact just described, even if this fact is described by a whole clause and which has no antecedent noun to latch onto.

Every fluent speaker knows this. The SAT prep course is wrong. I don't know of an authority you can cite to "win" an argument, but I would be very surprised if standard reference works on English grammar failed to cover this. The ultimate proof is reading and talking. I'm sure you can find at least 100,000 occurrences of this construction in real use in books.


I'd like to draw attention to the comma before which. Here the comma separates the two parts of the statement. Were the comma missing, which would refer to the bus. With comma the which refers to the whole first part of the sentence.

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    Note however that "we missed the bus, which was yellow" is also correct. So the comma does not force the relative clause to apply to anything more than "the bus". It does help it to do so. Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 20:47
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    @SteveJessop you're right, it doesn't force it. Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 21:09

The sentence is merely ambiguous. This is quite common with relative clauses. Since one possible interpretation is presumed untrue by the reader (that the bus itself somehow made you late), the ambiguity is eliminated and the sentence is accepted by most speakers of English.

The following will also typically be accepted:

"We missed the bus, which was yellow" (relative clause applies to "the bus")

"We missed the bus, which was our own stupid fault for oversleeping" (relative clause applies to "missing the bus". Unlike your example, applying it to "the bus" is not only false but nonsensical, so even the pedants who reject yours may accept this).

"We missed the bus, which made us late by spinning out on a sharp turn and blocking the road for two hours" (here the ambiguity is resolved in the opposite direction from your example -- indeed the bus did make us late despite us missing it).

As to whether the ambiguity is "erroneous", that depends how precise you need to be in context. It's certainly a correct sentence even if it's false: the issue is whether it reliably means what you want it to. Since both meanings are at least conceivable and require the reader to sort them out, it's not a great sentence, but normally it would work.

  • 1
    Some sentences are "great" primarily because they are ambiguous. It all depends on the author's intention. ;)
    – n.st
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 23:28

I’ll back Steve Jessop here. The sentence is completely correct so far as grammar goes. It just has room for multiple interpretations, but only to an inexperienced speaker. I am a non-native speaker, but I would only think about the bus making you late for school if I were taking the sentence apart in order to tease the author a bit. Relative clauses can be antecedents to “which” as well as nouns. When you have nouns in a relative clause which could possibly also be antecedents to “which”, well, you need to rely on your experience with the language to decipher the meaning.


If you're still feeling iffy about using which, there are some other ways to avoid using the word, like so:

Kim and I ran fast as we could, but we missed the bus, making us late for school.
Kim and I ran fast as we could, but we missed the bus, thus making us late for school.
Kim and I ran fast as we could, but we missed the bus, so we were late for school.

  • 1
    Personally, I wouldn't use any of these - I would immediately start describing why it's Kim's fault we were late and not mine. I guess that's just me. =)
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 23:43

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