Restrictive, Nonrestrictive Clauses

Restrictive Clause

The same underlying concepts found in this article also apply to restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases.

A restrictive/essential clause is a clause that is essential to the meaning of the sentence element that it modifies or identifies. In other words, without this clause or phrase the sentence as a whole would not carry the same meaning. Restrictive clauses should not be set off by commas. For example,

  • Musicians who sell millions of albums should make millions of dollars.

In this sentence, the clause “who sell millions of albums” is a restrictive clause. It indicates that only those musicians who are able to sell millions of albums should be paid millions of dollars.

  • Musicians, who sell millions of albums, should make millions of dollars.

When you set this clause off by commas, it suggests that all musicians should be paid millions of dollars, regardless of how many albums they sell.

Consider another example to illustrate restrictive clauses,

  • Correct: The man who is wearing the blue sweater is my father.
  • Wrong: The man, who is wearing the blue sweater, is my father.

In this sentence, “who is wearing the blue sweater” is a restrictive clause because there could be many men in the direction I am pointing, but there is only one who is wearing a blue sweater.

Nonrestrictive Clause

A nonrestrictive/nonessential clause is a clause that does not limit the essential meaning of the element that it modifies. In other words, if this clause or phrase were to be taken out of your sentence, the essential meaning behind the sentence would stay the same. Nonrestrictive clauses should be set off by commas in your sentences. For example,

  • My aunt, who is deeply religious, goes to church every Sunday.

If we take out “who is deeply religious” in this sentence, the reader can still gather the essential meaning of the sentence.

  • My aunt goes to church every Sunday.

Let’s try another example.

  • I drove away to college, wearing pinks shoes and sunglasses.

This time the nonrestrictive clause isn’t in the middle of the sentence, but the principle is still the same. If we remove the “wearing pink shoes and sunglasses,” the meaning of the sentence does not change. I am still driving off to college; the reader just knows a little less information about me. And that is the essential feature of nonrestrictive clauses. They offer extra information about whatever they are modifying (talking about). In this case it is I who the nonrestrictive clause is modifying.

A good way to remember the difference between the two is to think that nonrestrictive clauses are not necessary to the essential meaning of the sentence. Nonrestrictive clauses are not necessary.

To sum up,

  • A restrictive clause is one that is essential to the meaning of the sentence element that it modifies. In other words, if a restrictive clause were taken out of the sentence, the sentence would not carry the same meaning.
  • A nonrestrictive clause is one that is nonessential to the meaning of the sentence element that it modifies. In other words, if a nonrestrictive clause were taken out of the sentence the sentence would carry essentially the same meaning.
  • You can remember the difference by remembering that nonrestrictive clauses are not necessary to the sentence.

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