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5.5 Commas and Relative Clauses:  Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Relative Clauses

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Relative clauses are clauses (so they contain a subject and a predicate) that describe, or modify, a noun. They fall into two classes, restrictive and nonrestrictive. The restrictive ones limit, or “restrict” what the noun refers to.


            The realtor who is selling our house is really nice.

            The place where we go on vacation is usually San Juan Island.

            The child who is juggling wants to be in the circus.


Nonrestrictive relative clauses, on the other hand – though they might provide similar information – do not restrict the reference of the noun in the same way as restrictive relative clauses. In writing, nonrestrictive relative clauses are set off by commas, and you can also usually detect “comma intonation” in a speaker’s voice, distinguishing the two types. 


restrictive: The toys which we bought recently from a friend were not too expensive.


nonrestrictive: The toys, which we bought recently from a friend, were not too expensive.


The restrictive relative clause, which we bought recently from a friend, limits which toys we’re referring to, to the ones we bought recently from a friend. The non-restrictive relative clause, on the other hand, does not restrict the reference of the noun toys; it isn’t information that distinguishes those toys from other toys. That we bought the toys from a friend is simply extra information.


Identify the relative clauses in the following sentences and then determine whether they are restrictive or non-restrictive by putting commas around the non-restrictive ones. Many of them could be both, but the meaning would be slightly different. If that’s the case, briefly explain the difference.


The child from your class who has that new backpack is walking towards us.

The store only allows returns that are less than 30 days old.

The shoes which I had bought five weeks ago could not be returned.

The money is in my wallet which is on my desk.

The girl who is going to buy our Wii is coming over later today.

Sue who is going to buy our Wii is coming over later today.


Teacher Notes: There is a rule of writing that suggests that which should be used with non-restrictive relative clauses and that with restrictive relative clauses. This rule, however, varies, by style guides and editors, and is also a fairly recent restriction. Both which and that are and have been common for centuries with restrictive relative clauses. Most speakers and writers would agree that it sounds odd, however, to use that in a non-restrictive relative clause.


            Cupcakes, that I love, are on sale at the bakery.


key words: punctuation, relative clauses, restrictive and non-restrictive, commas

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.


Here is this lesson as a pdf.


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