Restrictive vs Nonrestrictive Clauses: What’s The Difference?

Learning a new language is arguably the best way to broaden your horizons if you are looking at any kind of job dealing with public service or global politics.  Interpersonal relationships between countries and governments are greatly improved when people are able to communicate clearly, and if you learn a language that is rarely spoken or known, you make yourself invaluable to your employer.  However, learning a language can be difficult because it can be hard to keep track of all the rules that different languages follow in their grammar.

English is considered one of the most notorious languages for keeping track of which rules are common and which rules are broken often.  People who learn English as a second or even third language struggle to remember spellings, verb tenses, singular and plural subject/verb agreements, writing styles, and several other common grammar mistakes.  English has so many complex and convoluted grammatical concepts and structures that make it very difficult to understand.

Something that even veteran English speakers struggle with is clausal phrases, commas, and how to integrate them all together properly.  In this article, let’s explore the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, what they even are, how to use them properly, and where they came from as a grammatical concept.

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“Defining” Clauses

English Grammar is a complicated concept, and maybe the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word clause is a mental image of the jolly fat man in a red suit who delivers presents on Christmas Eve and his wife at the North Pole.  However, that is really not even close.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a clause is actually, “a group of words containing a subject and predicate and functioning as a member of a complex or compound sentence”.  In this case, the word describes a very complicated grammatical concept that can be simplified down to the idea of combining several sentences into one with qualifiers and words that describe the rest of the words and the relationship between them.

At their most basic levels, clauses are a subject and a verb and the relationship between them.  So, in short, the phrase “auto drove” is a clause, but it really doesn’t tell you anything besides a simple action taken by a very nondescript object.  What makes clauses so complicated is that in English, you can string several clauses together to make complex or compound sentences that can describe one idea in great detail or create a relationship between several different ideas altogether.

Another example of clauses includes independent and dependent clauses.  An independent clause is one that can stand on its own as a full sentence, whereas dependent clauses are actually required to be a part of another sentence.  For example, the sentence, “every day when I wake up, I brush my teeth”, has an independent clause which can be its own sentence (I brush my teeth), and then a dependent clause “every day when I wake up”, which still has a subject and a verb when it comes to basic parts of speech, but cannot stand on its own and maintain the original meaning of the sentence.  Therefore, the first sentence is a complete sentence whereas the second sentence is not — that’s where things like relative pronouns, relative clauses, and modifiers come into play. 

What Is a Restrictive Clause?

A restrictive clause is specifically a clause that restricts or limits the meaning of the preceding subject.  It defines and adds description, but in a way that limits or defines a subset of a preceding subject.  For example, “the person in the car who has a brown purse just sneezed”.  The following sentence “the person in the car just sneezed” is perfectly fine on its own, but the clause “who has a brown purse” is a nonessential clause that restricts the description of the antecedents, narrowing down its focus. This is different from an essential clause that only contains essential information. 

What Is a Nonrestrictive Clause?

On the other hand, a nonrestrictive clause is a clause that just purely adds additional information to any given sentence or clause.  For example, “I would like to thank my mom, Jane Doe, for all her help last year.”  Notice how in this case, we are not necessarily restricting the universe’s amount of moms specifically, we are just pointing out a very specific mother via a proper noun and adding extra information to the rest of the sentence.

How to Punctuate Clauses

Learning how to properly punctuate clauses can be the hardest part of using them in writing.  However, it is important to remember that with restrictive clauses, no punctuation is necessary.  You add the qualifying or restricting information, and you leave it at that.  

On the other hand, nonrestrictive clauses almost always require extra punctuation because they often have introductory words such as who, which, or that which requires you to use commas to be placed in the middle of sentences.  

The History of Grammar

The history of grammar is what leads to much of the complexity inherent in English today.  The English language has come to its current form through thousands of years of evolution and adaptation from languages as far back as ancient Latin and Greek.  Most nouns in English find their way to modern English by way of several different Western European languages such as High German, Middle Dutch, Old English, and many more.  It is no surprise, then, that the complexity of English grammar is as high as it is.  

In Summary

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that what is deemed correct is actually a function of the audience you are speaking to.  In some cases, various slangs or colloquial pronunciations or grammar concepts may occur that are considered correct by some groups but incorrect by others. This is especially true if you are trying to use both American English and British English. Learning your audience and what they deem to be acceptable or correct is the most important metric to learn.  If you still struggle to learn or understand how to utilize certain grammatical concepts, just focus on practicing because it will come naturally sooner than you think.