Tag Archives: restrictive which

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 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.