February 11, 2015

WLUT: restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses

Posted in that/which, which at 5:19 pm by dlseltzer

I blame it on Microsoft. Microsoft Word to be precise. And its blasted grammar checker! It tells us to do something, and being both insecure and well-behaved, we acquiesce. Even when it’s wrong.

So, I think that is what happened in a manuscript I read recently where the writer inserted a comma before the word ‘which’ every time ‘which’ was used—regardless of how it was used.

This is the rule: when ‘which’ starts a clause that is nonrestrictive, that is, a clause which is not necessary for understanding the sentence, then ‘which is preceded by a comma. It might be easier to see how this works by giving you an example.

This book, which is bound in leather, is the definitive biography of James Joyce.

The clause ‘which is bound in leather’ is not crucial for understanding the sentence.

This book is the definitive biography of James Joyce.

So the clause is considered nonrestrictive, and the entire nonrestrictive clause is set off by commas.

When a clause is crucial for understanding the sentence, the clause is restrictive, and no commas are used.


I am going to interrupt myself now to mention something about restrictive clauses. There are two schools of thought about using restrictive clauses. One school believes that restrictive clauses should always begin with the word, ‘that’ and never with ‘which.’ The other school believes that language has evolved to the point that ‘which’ or ‘that’ can be used interchangeably in a restrictive clause. I am of the latter school. I think that either word can be used—the important thing is that no commas surround a restrictive clause.


Okay, back to business. Here is an example of a restrictive clause in a sentence:

The book which is bound in leather is the definitive biography of James Joyce.

 The sentence includes a restrictive clause because we need to know which book is the biography—it’s the one bound in leather. Another way to state this is:

The book that is bound in leather is the definitive biography of James Joyce.

That makes the first school happy. But, honestly, I think the first school is imposing a distinction that doesn’t really exist anymore. For me, the important thing is not to use commas around a restrictive clause.

Got it? Good.

Finally, I just wanted to give you a link to a New Your Times article which talks about the new New York Times style guide. It’s interesting and amusing. It recommends that reporters not use ‘CV’ as it is too “lofty.” They recommend the use of resume instead. Oh well.





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