Restrictive vs. Non-restrictive Clause: Use This Test to Know

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Do you know why the second sentence takes a pair of commas but the first doesn’t, even though both look similar? Do you know why the third sentence, from a popular English daily, is incorrect without a comma?

The man who lives next door is an architect.

Mr. Lockwood, who lives next door, is an architect.

He said he is proud to call Bharti her sister who has stood by him through his life. Source

The first doesn’t take a pair of commas because the clause (underlined) is restrictive, but the second takes because the clause is non-restrictive. The third needs a comma after sister because the clause is non-restrictive. (Explanation of this later in the post.) Many, however, put commas in such cases whimsically, often where they feel like taking pause, distorting the meaning in the process.

In this post, we’ll learn the two types of relative clauses: restrictive and non-restrictive. The terms restrictive and non-restrictive are usually associated with relative clauses, but even words and phrases display these properties. Later in the post, we’ll touch upon such words and phrases as well.

Restrictive vs. non-restrictive clause

Let’s understand the difference between the two through an example.

Image source

Situation 1

You’ve to tell your friend that the person in white t-shirt is your neighbor. What if you say this to convey your message?

The person is my neighbor.

Will he understand who of the three is your neighbor? No. That’s because the above description fits all three.

But what if you say this to convey your message?

The person who is leaning is my neighbor. Or

The person who is wearing white striped t-shirt is my neighbor.

Note: In the examples, relative clause has been underlined and noun (or noun phrase) being described by the relative clause has been shown in magenta font.

By using the underlined clause, you’ve narrowed down the possibilities from three to one. In other words, you’ve restricted the possibilities from three to one. That’s what restrictive clauses do. They narrow down a general noun to more specific. Because narrowing down concerns only nouns, all the talk of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses holds only for relative clauses. (They’re the only clause that describe nouns.)

If you drop the relative clause in the above sentences, you get:

The person is my neighbor.

Without the relative clause, you don’t know who of the three is your neighbor. The sentences have clearly lost specificity or meaning.

Situation 2

Let’s take another situation from the same picture. Your friend knows that the person in white t-shirt is Tom, and you want to tell him that Tom is your neighbor. Will this be sufficient to convey the message?

Tom is my neighbor.

Yes. You don’t need to talk about his t-shirt or posture to identify him.

Identification is done and dusted. Now, if you want to give more information about Tom to your friend, you can write.

Tom, who helps me in math, is my neighbor.

Through the relative clause who helps me in math, you’ve added extra information in the same sentence, which otherwise would’ve taken another.

If you drop the relative clause in the above sentence, you get:

Tom is my neighbor.

Even without the relative clause, you know who of the three is your neighbor. In other words, the sentence retains specificity or meaning.

The relative clause who helps me in math is a non-restrictive clause because it doesn’t restrict or narrow down the noun Tom. It merely adds extra information about the noun. Note that a non-restrictive clause comes with a pair of commas. There is only one comma though if the relative clause comes at the end of the sentence because period takes the place of second comma. (Comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

Academics will be tough for me without Tom, who helps me in math. [Comment: Only one comma]

In nutshell, a restrictive clause to narrows down or restricts or makes specific or identifies (they all mean the same thing) a general noun. It doesn’t take commas. A non-restrictive clause, in contrast, adds just extra information about a noun without restricting it. It takes commas (pair or one).

Restrictive clauses are also called essential clauses or defining clauses as without them the meaning changes. Non-restrictive clauses are also called non-essential clauses or non-defining clauses as they only add extra information to the sentence without affecting the meaning. Their role in determining the meaning of a sentence can be expressed through these metaphors:

A restrictive clause is heart and soul; without it, the sentence dies.

A non-restrictive clause is arm and leg; without it, the sentence can survive.

In all the examples so far, we’ve looked at relative clauses starting with who. Other marker words that start a relative clause are whom, whose, which, that, when, where, and why. Of these, that has a peculiar characteristic.

That-clause is always restrictive

That relative clause is used only in restrictive sense. So, this would be incorrect.

The city’s airport, that was recently renovated, is seeing an all-time high traffic. [Incorrect]

Because the city has one airport, it is already identified, and we don’t need to narrow it down further. Therefore, the above clause is non-restrictive. For such non-restrictive clauses, we use which.

The city’s airport, which was recently renovated, is seeing an all-time high traffic. [Correct]

If the city has two airports, then we need to identify which of the two is seeing an all-time high traffic.

The city’s airport that was recently renovated is seeing an all-time high traffic. [Correct]

Which and that, which are both used to describe non-humans, confuse many. You can learn where to use which, with several examples, in this post on which vs. that.

Once identified, a noun doesn’t need restrictive clause again

If you’ve already identified a noun and if the same noun reappears later, you don’t need to identify it again.

Suppose you write this sentence when referring to the doctor the first time:

We thanked the doctor who performed heart surgery on my father. [Noun in magenta font and relative clause underlined]

Then if you refer to the same doctor later on in the same piece of writing, you don’t need to repeat the restrictive clause.

The doctor came to see us when he was in the town.

But you can drop in a non-restrictive clause whenever you need to add some extra information.

The doctor, who was visiting his daughter, came to see us when he was in the town.

Now, if you see the above sentence without what has come before, say, in an exercise, you may think why the relative clause is not restrictive. Therefore, to avoid confusion, in exercises you’ll often see common nouns carrying restrictive clauses. But if you see common nouns preceded by article the carrying non-restrictive clauses (like in the above sentence) in isolated sentences, it means that the noun has already been identified through the (that’s a function of the).

Test to know which one (restrictive or non-restrictive) to use

A test to identify a restrictive clause from a non-restrictive clause is to drop the relative clause and see if the specificity of the noun changes. If it does, the clause is restrictive. If it doesn’t, the clause is non-restrictive. (This is nothing pathbreaking; it emanates from the basic definition of restrictive clauses narrowing down the noun and non-restrictive clauses doing nothing on this front.)

Let’s apply the test to few examples. Commas have been put in all four of them. If we identify any of them as restrictive, we’ll drop the commas.

The day, when most species will go extinct, will be a day of repentance and gloom.

The crow, that mimics a cormorant, is drowned.

The man, who started the rumour, has not been found.

If we drop the relative clauses, we get:

The day will be a day of repentance and gloom. [Which day are we talking about now? Black Friday. Christmas. Sunday. Specificity is clearly lost. So, the relative clause is restrictive.]

The crow is drowned. [Which crow? We meant a particular crow (the one that mimics a cormorant), but that specificity is lost without the relative clause. Hence, the clause is restrictive.]

The man has not been found. [Which man? We meant a particular man (the one who started the rumour), but that information is lost without the relative clause. Hence, the clause is restrictive.]

After learning which clause is restrictive and which is not, we can correct the commas.

The day when most species will go extinct will be a day of repentance and gloom. [Restrictive]

The crow that mimics a cormorant is drowned. [Restrictive]

The man who started the rumour has not been found. [Restrictive]

More resources on restrictive vs. non-restrictive:

Examples of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses

In each of the next four examples, you’re given a base sentence to which you’ve to add a relative clause based on the information provided in each of the two scenarios. That’s how we write in essays and other pieces of real writing: we use background information to decide whether a sentence will take restrictive or non-restrictive clause.

Example 1

Base sentence: People of Fantasy Land are protesting against the new law requiring everyone to shave their heads.

Scenario 1: People of Fantasy Land depend on mining, fishery, horticulture, and agriculture for their livelihood. All the people from mining industry are protesting. Nobody else is.

Answer 1: People of Fantasy Land who depend on mining for their livelihood are protesting against the new law requiring everyone to shave their heads. [Noun in magenta font and relative clause underlined]

Since people follow different professions, we need to identify people among them who are protesting. Hence, a restrictive clause has been used.

Scenario 2: People of Fantasy Land depend on mining alone for their livelihood, and all of them are protesting.

Answer 2: People of Fantasy Land, who depend on mining for their livelihood, are protesting against the new law requiring everyone to shave their heads.

You don’t need to identify people who are protesting because all of them are engaged in mining. Here, this information is just extra. Alternatively, you can apply the test: drop the relative clause and see if any specificity is lost. It’s not.

How do I know that information is restrictive or non-restrictive unless I’m told?

I’ve received this question quite frequently from students.

When you’re writing real pieces, as opposed to answering isolated questions in exercises, you’ll know from the context whether the information is restrictive or not. A case in point is the example of Fantasy Land we just saw. Without knowing what people of Fantasy Land do for livelihood, we couldn’t have written the two sentences.

Often times though, like in case of proper nouns which don’t require further restriction, you won’t need details like we needed for Fantasy Land example.

In the next three examples as well, you’ll get background information to decide between restrictive and non-restrictive. Give it a try and then check the answer.

Example 2

Base sentence: John’s brother came to meet me.

Scenario 1: John has one brother, and he lives in Philadelphia.

Answer 1: John’s brother, who lives in Philadelphia, came to meet me.

Because John has only one brother, we don’t need to identify him, and hence we require a non-restrictive clause. The information in relative clause is just extra.

Scenario 2: John has two brothers: one lives in Philadelphia and the other in Chicago. The one living in Philadelphia came to meet me.

Answer 2: John’s brother who lives in Philadelphia came to meet me.

Because John has two brothers, we need to identify who among the two came to meet me, and hence we require a restrictive clause.

Example 3

Base sentence: Tom is walking with a limp today.

Scenario 1: Tom’s leg came under a falling chair yesterday. There is only one student named Tom in the class.

Answer 1: Tom, whose leg came under a falling chair yesterday, is walking with a limp today.

Scenario 2: Tom’s leg came under a falling chair yesterday. There are two students named Tom in the class.

Answer 2: Tom whose leg came under a falling chair yesterday is walking with a limp today.

Example 4

Base sentence: The government will honor the sportspersons.

Scenario 1: All the sportspersons won a medal, and they’ll be honored.

Answer 1: The government will honor the sportspersons, who won a medal.

We don’t need to identify the sportspersons because all of them won a medal and all of them will be honored.

Scenario 2: Few sportspersons won a medal, and only they’ll be honored.

Answer 2: The government will honor the sportspersons who won a medal.

We need to identify the sportspersons because not everyone won the medal.

More examples

He said he is proud to call Bharti her sister, who has stood by him through his life. Source [Non-restrictive. This is the example we saw at the beginning of the post. If the relative clause was restrictive, it would mean that he has more than one sister and that they fall in two categories: those who have stood by him though his life and those who haven’t.]

The old man who got out of a swanky car minutes ago walked straight into the meeting room. [Restrictive. You can apply the test to this and other examples.]

Because of few issues with the test, people who were told they tested negative are being recalled. [Restrictive]

Anyone who makes silly mistakes in the exercise can retake it. [Restrictive]

The doctor whom my father visited for several years now lives in Singapore. [Restrictive]

The lawyer whose car was stolen last week came to see my dad today. [Restrictive]

Friday, which happens to be my birthday, is the only day when I am available to meet. [Non-restrictive and restrictive]

Tom surprisingly got along well with Mac, whose quirky personality seemed to fascinate him. [Non-restrictive]

In life’s journey don’t be obsessed with the final reward, which may come after many months or years or may not come at all, but enjoy little achievements and experiences every day. [Non-restrictive]

The solution is alkaline, which means it has a pH of more than 7. [Non-restrictive]

Albert Einstein proposed theory of relativity, which states that gravity affects the fabric of space-time. [Non-restrictive]

To increase human longevity, scientists had to first unbelieve the existing dogma that every living being’s lifespan is predetermined by God. [Restrictive. There are so many dogmas, so we need to specify through a restrictive clause.]

After Roger Bannister’s record-breaking run, self-belief among athletes that a mile can be run under four minutes changed. [Restrictive]

Restrictive vs. non-restrictive words and phrases

As we discussed earlier, restrictive and non-restrictive terms come into play when a word, phrase, or a clause describes (or modifies) a noun. Now, is relative clause the only entity that modifies a noun? No.

Adjectives, appositive phrases, prepositional phrases, participial phrases, and infinitive phrases too can modify nouns in some situations, and hence they too can be restrictive or non-restrictive. (Appositive phrase is not exactly a modifier. It’s a noun phrase that merely restates a noun in different words.)

Here are few examples of each of these. To get most out of these examples, note how restrictive word or phrase narrows down the noun it modifies and how non-restrictive word or phrase merely adds extra information. You can in fact apply the test we covered earlier by dropping the modifying word or phrase (underlined).

1. Adjective

The blue dress stands out. [Restrictive. The adjective restricts the dresses to only blue dresses.]

The dying man wrote his will. [Restrictive]

Mary had a busy schedule. [Restrictive]

2. Appositive

John F. Kennedy, U.S. President, set the goal of landing a human on moon. [Non-restrictive. If we drop the appositive phrase, the identification isn’t lost. Remember, a proper noun always takes a non-restrictive modifier.]

U.S. President John F. Kennedy set the goal of landing a human on moon. [Restrictive. If we drop the appositive phrase, identification is lost. We would not know which U.S. President set the goal.]

Megalodon, the most feared predator ever in the ocean, went extinct nearly two million years ago. [Non-restrictive]

3. Prepositional phrase

My trip to Chicago was cancelled at the last minute. [Restrictive]

The sprinter in the yellow body suit is the favorite to win the race. [Restrictive]

My brother, in blue shirt, works in Microsoft. [Non-restrictive. Because my brother is already identified, we don’t need restrictive phrase. If I have two brothers and both are standing together, then I need a restrictive prepositional phrase to identify: My brother in blue shirt works in Microsoft.]

Do you know why the third sentence, from a popular English daily, is incorrect without a comma? [Non-restrictive. This is a sentence in the opening paragraph of this post. If the phrase was restrictive, it would mean that the sentence being referred to is the third sentence from the article in the English daily, which is not the case.]

4. Participial phrase

The sprinter waving at the audience is the favorite to win the race. [Restrictive]

Tom, knowing that he is unlikely to win the race, was relaxed. [Non-restrictive. Remember, a proper noun is already identified and hence takes a non-restrictive modifier.]

The damage to the car caused by the accident was significant. [Restrictive. Note that to the car is a restrictive prepositional phrase.]

5. Infinitive phrase

My dream to participate in the event was shattered because of the injury. [Restrictive]

Your decision to miss the trials has not been taken well. [Restrictive]

His attempt to pacify his supporters failed. [Restrictive]

6. Others

If a decision such as picking college, college major, or career comes from own choice, we don’t feel bad if it turns out to be bad. [Restrictive]

Many start-ups are building products and services on innovations of the past, such as blockchain, UPI, and GPT 3. [Non-restrictive]

How understanding restrictive vs. non-restrictive helps your writing?

You should learn the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive to write correct English. Period. Let’s see some common errors and see how they change the meaning or confuse readers.

The man, who lives next door, is an architect.

Mr. Lockwood who lives next door is an architect.

The man who lives next door, is an architect.

The non-restrictive clause in the first sentence would imply that we already know who the man is. If you’ve already introduced this person in earlier sentences, this is fine (we saw this topic earlier in the post). But if not, then the readers will scratch their heads, trying to figure out who this man is.

The incorrect use of restrictive clause in the second sentence would imply that there are more than one Mr. Lockwood, and we’re trying to identify one of them.

The incorrect use of just one comma leaves readers hanging because they’re expecting two or none. BTW, this is a common error, especially when the relative clause gets long. Example:

Anyone who takes an exercise and later on realizes that they made a silly mistake or didn’t grasp the question correctly can retake it.

It’s a restrictive clause and the sentence wouldn’t take any comma, but many get restless while writing such long restrictive clause and put an unwarranted comma to take a pause, but commas aren’t governed by pause.

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