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Nonrestrictive commas (with which but not that)

“Can't get over that nonrestrictive comma”

“Using that or which with that stupid comma”

Also see
comma rules, nonrestrictive commas exercise, skydiving with nonrestrictive commas,
common punctuation errors, and FAQ punctuation.


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Can't get over that nonrestrictive comma

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

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.



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Using that or which with that stupid comma

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

You can work your entire career without knowing the difference between a gerund and a participle, and still be successful. You can live your entire life without knowing the difference between a metaphor and a simile, and still be happy.


But you can’t write on the job without knowing the difference between a main clause and a dependent clause, and still be effective.


Before I explain why this is so, it might help if I defined some basic grammatical terms. A “clause,” for example, is a string of words that contains a subject and a verb. Clauses come in two varieties: “main” (or “independent”) and “dependent” (or “subordinate”). A “main clause” forms a complete sentence and can stand on its own. A “dependent clause,” on the other hand, must be attached in some way to a main clause.


OK so far? Here’s where things get a little tricky.


Often the relationship between a main clause and a dependent clause is indicated by the use of “which” or “that” (relative pronouns) and by the presence or absence of that most terrifying of punctuation marks: the comma.


Now, don’t panic. Don’t flip to the comics or the sports page yet. Just remember that a comma is simply a mark separating the parts of a sentence. Some parts need separating. Others don’t. (Centuries ago, the comma looked like a slash or “/”; over time its size has diminished, but its function is unchanged.)


Take this sentence as an example: “The proposal which the council approved recommended hiring teenagers from the inner city.” Because the writer has not indicated how the dependent clause relates to the main clause, the sentence is unclear.


Does it mean the proposal, which happened to be approved by the council, recommended hiring inner city teenagers? Or does it mean, of all the proposals considered by the council, the one that recommended hiring inner city teenagers was approved?


If you’re having trouble hearing the difference, try reading the sentence out loud. For the first meaning, read it with pauses (which I’ll mark the old way): “The proposal / which the council approved / recommended hiring teenagers from the inner city.” For the second meaning, change “which” to “that” and read it without pauses: “The proposal that the council approved recommended hiring teenagers from the inner city.”


Now can you hear the two meanings?


Your job as a writer is to ensure that your reader understands which meaning you have in mind. You can accomplish this by following these simple steps:


1. Identify the main clause and the dependent clause. (In the example above, the main clause is “The proposal . . . recommended hiring teenagers from the inner city,” and the dependent clause is “. . . which the council approved . . .”).


2. Determine if the dependent clause is “nonrestrictive” (that is, nonessential or merely descriptive in meaning), or if it is “restrictive” (that is, essential to the meaning of the sentence).


3. Introduce a nonrestrictive clause with “which” and mark it with commas.


4. Introduce a restrictive clause with “that” and do not mark it with commas.


Hint: If you can put parentheses around a dependent clause, it is, by definition, a nonessential or nonrestrictive clause and therefore should be marked with commas and introduced with “which.”


Now, if you made it this far, you have survived an explanation of one of the most subtle, and most troubling, rules of English grammar. But does it really matter? Does the reader care?


Only if your goal is to communicate clearly and unambiguously. But here’s the irony: Even readers who don’t respect this rule in their writing will understand your meaning more precisely if you respect it in your writing.


It’s not fair, is it?




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