Tag Archives: nonrestrictive clauses

About this sentence that you’re reading

Originally published in Active Voice, the magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

About this sentence that you’re reading…

Should that be “About this sentence, which you’re reading”? After all, you’re not reading any other sentence, are you? So it’s not restrictive, so it must be non-restrictive, meaning it should have a comma and use which. Right?

I was talking to my wife Aina and a friend about this the other day…

What?

What do you mean, how many wives do I have? Look, if I set it off in commas, it would be “I was talking to my wife, Aina, and a friend about this the other day,” and you would be saying “So that’s three people? Who’s your wife if not Aina?”

Since you’re an editor, you’ve heard of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause is like a little Santa Claus in the sentence: it gives the reader a gift, with a comma or two as tiny ribbons.

The cakes are served warm.

The cakes, which are kept in the refrigerator but carried under the waiters’ arms, are served warm.

The sentence would be coherent without it, but it’s there as a special bonus of information. It’s also called a nonrestrictive relative, which works because it’s not really Santa Claus giving you gifts, it’s your relatives. (The rules apply similarly to non-clause modifiers as well, such as the name of my wife, Aina.)

A restrictive clause or relative (or modifier) is like your aunt who says “I’m giving you anything you want as long as it’s this sweater!” It no sooner gives than it starts to take away.

The tea is served cold.

The tea that is carried by Pat is served cold; the tea that is carried by Alex is served warm.

But where there is a Claus, there may be a Grinch. What is a restrictive Grinch? It’s one of those people who carp at things that are perfectly clear to reasonable people. Consider:

He went to a famous school called Eton.

The restrictive Grinch might say “Oh, so there are multiple famous schools called Eton?” In fact, the sentence does not necessarily imply that there are multiple famous schools called Eton (although it does imply that there are multiple famous schools), and ambiguity is not automatically a grammatical error – although it can be worth avoiding… when a reasonable person might reasonably misread it, or when too many people might deliberately (and unreasonably) misread it for their own entertainment.

Reasonableness is important. Communication normally (outside of contracts and courts of law) depends on people being reasonable. We make inferences on the basis of what’s reasonable, given our knowledge of the world. If we have some new data, such as a sentence,* and we choose among different interpretations on the basis of what we already know to be the case, we’re using a loose form of Bayesian inference.

Let’s take a Bayesian look at “my wife Aina and a friend” versus “my wife, Aina, and a friend.” In the version with commas, if we don’t know my wife’s name, we need to conjecture or determine whether I use the serial comma; if I don’t, it’s clearly two people, but if I do, it may be three. In the version without commas, the possibilities are (1) that I have more than one wife or (2) that I am disregarding the usual rule about setting off nonrestrictives with commas. Why would I disregard it? To avoid interrupting the flow or causing ambiguity with the extra commas. Given that bigamy is illegal in our society, option 2 is far more likely. Indeed, only a restrictive Grinch would raise the objection that the comma-free version must mean option 1.

There are, of course, many cases where proper use of commas is necessary to set off nonrestrictive clauses for clarity or legal defensibility. But there are also cases where the commas make no difference to the meaning but may make a difference to the flow or tone. The moon, which orbits the earth, is also the moon that orbits the earth (since there are many moons but there is one we call the moon); the sun, which we orbit, is also the sun that we orbit (for the same reason). This sentence that you’re reading is this sentence, which you’re reading, and the different possible uses of this make both defensible, but flow and tone may make one a better choice than the other.

So, when we are faced with a modifier such as a relative clause and we’re not confident about whether it’s restrictive or unrestrictive, we should ask the following questions:

  1. Will the commas help or hurt the flow?
  2. How likely is it to be misread accidentally?
  3. How likely is it to be misread deliberately?
    1. By which readers?
      1. And do they really matter?

 

*Or some new data such as a sentence – equally true.

The restrictive which

I think it’s about time I posted another poem from Songs of Love and Grammar, the silly book of rhymes about grammar and romantic difficulties which I wrote a few years ago. This one focuses on the “restrictive which.”

Allow me to explain. Let’s say you have a noun that’s modified by a subordinate clause: “the cake that I ate” or “the cake, which I ate.” If there are several cakes, you specify which cake you’re talking about by using a restrictive clause: “the cake that I ate” (not a different cake that I didn’t eat). If there’s only one cake you could be talking about, and you just want to give a bit more information about it, you can do so with a nonrestrictive clause: “the cake, which I ate.”

It’s more common in North America to use that rather than which for restrictive clauses (the cake that I ate rather than the cake which I ate), but which is normal in England and elsewhere and many people use it in North America. The thing that really makes the difference between the two kinds of clause (in print) is the comma: with a comma (the cake, which I ate), it’s nonrestrictive; without (the cake which I ate), it’s restrictive. This poem is for those people who think the restrictive which doesn’t exist. Oh, yes, it does…

The restrictive witch

There is a certain house which sits upon a shady street
and in it lives a person which you may not want to meet.

She has a cloak and hat which she is never seen without
and owns a darkling cat which likes to yowl and prowl about.

And there is one key thing which makes this witch a cause of fear:
she has a special magic which she does to those who near.

Whatever thing she catches which is single of its kind,
she makes it simply that which is like others you may find.

This is an operation which she does with neat precision
by writing sentences which are subjected to excision

of one small curly mark which serves to separate the noun
from modifying phrase which newly serves to tie it down.

No longer have you just one job, which pays you well, to work;
your job which pays you well shares time with other jobs which shirk.

You had a dent, which is not big, alone upon your car;
now by the dent which is not big sit other dents that are.

Your marriage, which is happy, soon will find it’s not alone –
your marriage which is happy won’t be when the rest are known.

Your ring, which says Eileen, will lead Eileen to know your games:
your ring which says Eileen shares space with rings with other names.

It’s bad enough to have one bad divorce, which is near done;
the bad divorce which is near done awaits another one,

and though one lawyer’s bill, which could be worse, is not a lot,
the bill which could be worse is stacked with others which could not.

And all this loss which is not fair comes not from peeve or itch;
it comes from lack of caution with that bad restrictive witch.

An article title, “An article title ‘An article title needs commas’ needs commas,” needs commas

A little while back, a fellow editor asked me about commas and appositives, particularly with an eye to mentioning titles of books and such like. Consider the following:

A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” makes no mention of the weather in January.

The question was whether the commas should be there. It’s a restrictive, isn’t it? You’re specifying which report, right?

Actually, structurally, no. It’s kind of counterintuitive. In fact, with just a noun phrase there, you can’t make it restrictive. Compare:

A passenger, a young lady, sat next to me.

*A passenger a young lady sat next to me.

A passenger, who was a young lady, sat next to me.

A passenger who was a young lady sat next to me.

When it’s just a noun phrase, it’s effectively an alternate subject (or object, in a case such as “I sat next to another passenger, a young lady”) – you need to make a full relative clause to make a restrictive.

Now, if you use the, you can go with or without commas when it’s a name or title:

The report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

The report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

Note that the second is restrictive, while the first assumes that the report has already been established in a previous sentence and we are here just naming it. With “a” rather than “the” you of course can’t have established it before, but you are on the spot establishing it, and you would need a relative clause to restrict it further:

A report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

*A report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report, called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

In some nonstandard versions of English we can use a simple noun phrase as a restrictive: “I met a man Bojangles and he danced for me”; we see survivals of this in something like “He is her man Friday.” But it’s not a real option in standard modern English.

And how about an instance like the following – should there be a comma after “report”?

In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” the authors pretend it’s not brass monkey weather in January.

In fact, it’s fine as it is as long as the report is not previously established in the text. If we said “In a 2011 report,” we would need to use commas, but with “In the 2011 report” we can’t use the comma (the comma after is fine because it’s the end of the propositional phrase that’s modifying the main clause). If the report is previously established – “…there were annual reports on Ottawa tourism from 2009 to 2014” – then your sentence would be “In the 2011 report, ‘Fun Things’” etc.

Here are the three possible combinations of articles and commas, with comments:

  • In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – specifies which book you’re talking about that you are newly introducing
  • In the 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – the book has been previously named, so you’re not at this point establishing its identity, you’re just clarifying it
  • In a 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – “a 2011 report” posits some report, tout court, without greater specificity possible; you can’t narrow down on a because then it’s not a report, it’s the report, this report – so if you add the title it has to be non-restrictive because a can’t be restricted further

There was one more question, based on a reading of a dictum from the Chicago Manual of Style: If you use something like called before the title, shouldn’t it have a comma? Like this:

A 2011 report called, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” etc.

The answer is no, it shouldn’t. It’s an error I see on occasion, I think because of confusion with sentences such as “John said, ‘Come in,’” and “Suzie called, ‘It’s time for dinner!’” In the use here, call is a verb that takes three arguments (in the syntactic/semantic sense of argument: an entity or actor or complement): a subject and two objects. The first object is what (or who) is being called, and the second is what that person or thing is being called (i.e., the name). “I shall call him John.” When used as an adjective, the subject is removed (same as in the passive voice) but there still need to be both objects. “A boy1 called John2 came to see you” – not “A boy called, John, came to see you.” (You can write “A boy, called John, came to see you,” making it non-restrictive, because “called John” is a relative clause, though a nonfinite one. But that’s a separate matter.)

The rule is the same for entitled: “A report entitled ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa’ just came out” – not “A report entitled, ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa,’ just came out.” It has the same argument structure.

Always remember: approach authoritative grammar guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style with the Buddha’s dictum (a variant thereof) in mind: if something you read in it conflicts with your sense of what is usable English, follow your sense… and figure out what the reason is for the discrepancy. If following a rule makes something sound weird to you, the odds are good that the rule doesn’t apply in that way in that instance.