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Exercise on nonrestrictive commas

Columns on nonrestrictive commas

Skydiving with nonrestrictive commas
First published April 5, 2010

Can't get over that nonrestrictive comma
First published August 22, 2005

First published April 5, 2010

“Skydiving with nonrestrictive commas”

By Stephen Wilbers

I did something yesterday I’ve never done before. Not once, but twice. I jumped out of an airplane. I went skydiving, a birthday present from my son.

Sure, it was thrilling to climb out of a Cessna 182 at 3,000 feet into an 80-mile-an-hour wind, hang from the strut, look back at my divemaster, who smiled and pointed her finger at me – and let go, trusting my life to a bag of nylon and a bunch of cords. The serene beauty of the fields and forests surrounding Lake Wissota was breathtaking. And swooping down to the drop zone, pulling down on my toggles at 10 feet to flare the panels, and stepping gently onto the blessed earth was as delicious as the first time I felt the intoxicating balance of a bicycle.

All that was grand. But what made the experience unforgettable was the six-hour training class, expertly taught by a club member. Of course, the other newbies and I were apprehensive, but we began to relax while I was hanging in the practice harness demonstrating the various positions we were to assume if we were about to hit a tree, building, car, cow, or string of power lines. The drill gave us a lot of confidence.

That's when the instructor said, "Now, if both your main chute and your reserve fail, you’ll gain a maximum velocity of 163 feet per second, or 111 miles per hour, in 9 seconds. At that speed you’ll hit the ground in 22 seconds, which rarely happens."

"I'm concerned," said one of my fellow newbies. "Did you use a comma before your clause, 'which rarely happens'? I never learned the rules for using commas."

It was an awkward moment. We all felt sorry for the man who asked the question. Naturally, everyone looked at me, perhaps because I was in the harness, or perhaps because they knew who I was from seeing my photo in the newspaper police reports.

"Yes," I said, in my most reassuring tone. "Use commas with which clauses that are parenthetical or nonessential, as in ‘My reserve chute deployed perfectly, which was a good thing, since I inadvertently cut and released my main.’ In that sentence, the clause, ‘which was a good thing,’ is nonessential. It could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence."

"Thank you," said the man. "Such a simple rule. I’m embarrassed I didn’t learn it in school. But how can I tell if the clause is essential or nonessential?"

"Simple," I said. "If you can place the clause in parentheses, use commas. If you can’t, don’t."

"Would you give us another example?" asked another newbie, who like me was fit and trim.

"Sure," I said. "I used a comma before the nonrestrictive who clause in my preceding sentence."

"That's right," said the instructor. "Use commas with clauses that are nonessential; omit commas with clauses that are essential."

"Exactly," I said, noting her comma-free essential that clauses.

Exercise on nonrestrictive commas



First published August 22, 2005

“Can't get over that nonrestrictive comma”

By Stephen Wilbers

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 competent writers.
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:

1. Nonrestrictive clauses are generally introduced by which.

2. Restrictive clauses are generally introduced by that.

3. Both nonrestrictive and restrictive clauses, however, may be introduced by who.

4. Nonrestrictive clauses are nonessential.
They may be deleted from a sentence without changing its meaning.

5. Nonrestrictive clauses do take commas.

6. 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.

7. 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 old.”

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 and phrases:

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.

Exercise on nonrestrictive commas




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