Nonrestrictive and Restrictive Clauses

(Original post:

That title sounds like this blog should be about Santa getting kinky, which might be a fun diversion from my otherwise monochromatic blog. Really, what I’m going to write about today is the dreaded that/which duo and some of their friends, and I managed to work an example into my first sentence. I will wait for your applause before continuing.


First, let me tell you what the words in the title mean and then I’ll show you how to wield these tools mightily. Nonrestrictive means that the clause, noun, or pronoun is interesting but not essential. Restrictive means that the clause, noun, or pronoun in question is intrinsic to your discussion. That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?


You set off a nonrestrictive clause, noun, or pronoun off by commas, just as you would any other nonessential information. That’s pretty simple too, right?


Now look at an example to see why it’s not so easy.


The woman, whose name was Marthe, came from Belgium.

The woman whose name was Marthe came from Belgium.


In the first sentence, the “whose” clause was set off by commas, so you know it’s optional. The sentence could just as easily read:


The woman came from Belgium.


In this latest example, which specific woman being discussed is not in question. The subject of the sentence is “the woman” and where she came from is the interesting bit. We know from the previous example that her name is Marthe, but it’s set off by commas and one of those nonrestrictive trigger words (whose), so we know that the name isn’t important.


The second example, the one with no commas in the original set, shows us that in this particular instance, the name Marthe is essential information. The second example sentence is a simple way of saying:


See that group of women over there all wearing name tags? Do you see the one on the left there, the one whose name tag says “Marthe?” She’s from Belgium. None of those other women are from Belgium. None of the other women are named Marthe, either.


The word “that” is ordinarily found pointing to restrictive clauses, and “which” is found aimed at nonrestrictive. This means that “which” usually has a comma preceding it and “that” doesn’t. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?


The man chased the hat that had blown off in the wind.

The man chased the hat, which had blown off in the wind.


In the first hat example, the specific hat is identified by the windblown part of the sentence. It’s restrictive. The man may have other hats, but the one he chased was the one that was blown off by the wind. Do you see? In the second example, the important bit is that the man was chasing his hat. The fact that it had blown off in the wind isn’t important because it’s set off by a comma and a nonrestrictive trigger word (which).


That, which, when, and whose seem to be the usual offenders for this particular confusion, but there are other words that provide the restricting and nonrestricting service. Sometimes, you have to recast the sentence entirely to make sure the otherwise nonessential information doesn’t seem that way, but it’s not hard. You just have to think about what information you’re trying to impart. Here. Try a few (italicized clauses indicate the presence of restrictive triggers):


Anne Sexton, who was a twentieth century American, wrote dark poetry.

Anne Sexton wrote dark poetry.

Twentieth-century American Anne Sexton wrote dark poetry.

Anne Sexton, whose poetry was dark, lived in the twentieth century.


The bus, which I hoped to catch, was climbing the hill.

The bus was climbing the hill.

The bus that I hoped to catch was climbing the hill.


The waiter, when the food was ready, came to our table.

The waiter came to our table.

The waiter came to our table when the food was ready,


The dog that was barking had a nice tail.

The barking dog had a nice tail.


Okay, maybe it is easy after all.


You can find these blogs, a little information about my editorial services and me, and a collection of pages about my “real” life on my Web site,

Posted: March 1st, 2005, 12:44pm CET by Melanie Spiller

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