i. Restrictive and Non-restrictive clauses

What are Restrictive and Non-restrictive clauses?

Consider these two sentences, both of which contain the same relative clause. Do you see the differences in their meanings?

Example 1

All politicians who are crooks should go to jail.

All politicians, who are crooks, should go to jail.

The commas make a big difference. In the first sentence, we’re told that only those politicians who are crooks should go to jail.

In the second, we’re told parenthetically that all politicians are crooks, and they all should go to jail.

We’re comparing restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses here. In the first sentence, the restrictive clause restricts the meaning of all politicians to include only those who are crooks. The non-restrictive clause in the second sentence informs us that all politicians are crooks.

The pair of commas in the second sentence (known as parenthetical commas) make the enclosed information supplemental so that the relative clause does not modify or restrict the words all politicians.

Here are some more examples:

Example 2

It’s fun to watch magicians who are clever.

It’s fun to watch magicians, who are clever.

The first sentence tells us that only some magicians (those who are clever) are fun. The second sentence gives us some supplementary information about all magicians.

Notice that the non-restrictive clauses could be enclosed in parentheses instead of commas.

In some sentences, the commas don’t seem to make much difference:

Example 3

I dislike those baseball fans who are rude.

I dislike those baseball fans, who are rude.

In both cases, we’re speaking about a particular group of fans, although the first sentence seems to be about all rude fans; the second, about a particular group of rude fans.


“Restrictive and Non-restrictive clauses” adapted from “Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses” of  Brehe’s Grammar Anatomy from  Steven Brehe, University of North Georgia, used according to creative commons CC BY-SA 4.0. Access for free at https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/english-textbooks/20/


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