I’ve been thinking about nonrestrictive commas lately. I just
can’t get them off my mind.
Many writers don’t use them. Rather than include the comma in a
sentence such as “I helped raise $100,000 for the new
Minneapolis Public Library, which opened in May 2005,” they
leave it out.
Omitting or misusing the nonrestrictive comma is one of the last
major errors many writers eliminate from their writing. It’s a
persistent error, one that lingers even in the text of otherwise
Imagine how you’d feel if you were a driving instructor and you
noticed that three-quarters of the drivers on the road weren’t
using their turn signals. You’d feel awful.
I’ve tried teaching writers when to use commas with
nonrestrictive clauses. I’ve tried every approach I could think
of. Nothing seems to work. So I’m trying something new.
I’ve created a PowerPoint presentation explaining the rule, and
I’m posting it on my website. Here’s a preview:
clauses are generally introduced by which.
clauses are generally introduced by that.
nonrestrictive and restrictive clauses, however, may be
introduced by who.
clauses are nonessential. They may be deleted from a sentence
without changing its meaning.
clauses do take commas.
■Restrictive clauses are
essential. Deleting them changes the meaning of the sentence.
They are said to be “restrictive” because they “restrict,”
limit, or define the thing they refer to, as does the that
clause in this sentence: “The quality that impresses me most is
honesty.” Remove the clause and you have a different meaning.
■Restrictive clauses do
not take commas.
Imagine two men walking toward you: “The man who is wearing a
white hat is 102 years old.” The who clause is telling
you which man is wearing the hat. Omitting the clause would
alter the meaning of the sentence, so the clause is restrictive
or essential to the meaning of the sentence. No commas.
Now picture only one man. He’s wearing a black hat, and he’s 90
years old: “That man, who is wearing a black hat, is 90 years
Note the commas marking the who clause. The clause merely
describes, rather than defines, the person or thing it refers
to, so it is said to be “nonrestrictive” or nonessential to the
sentence. Deleting it would not change the meaning.
Nonrestrictive clauses are marked with commas.
Here are two hints to help you recognize nonrestrictive clauses
Hint no. 1:
If parentheses can be placed around the clause or phrase, it’s
nonrestrictive. Use commas.
Hint no. 2:
If the words “by the way” can be inserted after which or
who, it’s nonrestrictive. Use commas.
Remember: Nonrestrictive clauses (which by the way are
nonessential) take commas.
So why not go to my website and
take a look? As you click on
the little arrow, open your subconscious mind to the words and
examples that appear on your screen. Let them sink in. Learn
when to use nonrestrictive commas. Knowing will help you write
more clearly, and it will make me happy.