Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses: a Which Hunt

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Pop quiz: How should you punctuate this sentence? 

We stood in my grandmother’s backyard which was covered in dead leaves.

Answer: It depends on how many backyards your grandmother has.

I’ll explain further – but first we should review the concept of restrictive vs. nonrestrictive relative clauses.

Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive

A relative clause is a descriptive clause that begins with a relative pronoun (e.g., who, which, what, that). A relative clause may be restrictive – in that the clause identifies and limits the noun it modifies – or a relative clause may be nonrestrictive – in that the clause provides supplemental, nonessential information regarding the noun it modifies. Nonrestrictive clauses, because they are nonessential, are properly set off with commas from the noun they modify. Restrictive clauses are not set off with commas.

Why does the distinction matter? Because the difference in restriction can affect the meaning of the sentence. A restrictive clause suggests to the reader that the modified noun has been singled out among a group of similar objects – and, if improperly deployed, the effect can be unintentionally comical.

We stood in my grandmother’s backyard, which was covered in dead leaves.

The above sentence, which uses a nonrestrictive clause (note the comma), indicates that the speaker’s grandmother has one backyard – and, by the way, her backyard was covered in dead leaves.

Here’s the sentence with a restrictive clause (no comma):

We stood in my grandmother’s backyard which was covered in dead leaves.

With a restrictive clause, the sentence suggests that the grandmother has many backyards at her disposal, and the speaker stood in only one of these backyards – specifically, the yard that was covered in dead leaves (as opposed to, perhaps, the yard that had been raked already, or the yard that had been turned into a vegetable garden).

That vs. Which: the Which Hunt

Much ink has been spilled over the question of when to use “that” or “which” to begin a relative clause. Some grammarians will argue that one should only use “that” to introduce restrictive clauses, and only use “which” to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. This is a good rule to follow if it helps you remember the difference in restrictive vs. nonrestrictive clauses while you’re writing.

However, in common use, people tend to deploy both “that” and “which” in restrictive clauses. The most important thing to remember when you’re trying to delineate restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses is that a nonrestrictive clause needs a comma. Think of it this way: if it’s providing supplemental information (nonrestrictive), the clause gets set aside with a comma.

Practicing Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive Clauses: Another Example

How would you punctuate this sentence?

The cynic who thrives on sour grapes is a great bore.

Here’s another situation where the difference in comma use changes the meaning of the sentence. If you use a nonrestrictive clause (with commas), you get this:

The cynic, who thrives on sour grapes, is a great bore.

The sentence claims that “the cynic” – a general type of person, the cynical type – is a great bore. If you don’t know what a cynic is, the sentence offers some supplemental information to define “cynic” for you – it’s a person who thrives on sour grapes.

If you use a restrictive clause (no comma), here’s what you get:

The cynic who thrives on sour grapes is a great bore.

The sentence implies that there are many kinds of cynics – one of whom thrives on sour grapes. That cynic – the one who thrives on sour grapes – happens to be a great bore. But what about the other cynics the writer hasn’t singled out? Perhaps the cynic who thrives on battery acid is the life of the party. Alas, the reader has been left to wonder about those other implied cynics forever.

Further Reading

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