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What Is a Restrictive Modifier? (with Examples)

What Is a Restrictive Modifier? (with Examples)

A restrictive modifier is a word, phrase, or dependent clause which modifies another element in a way which is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Unlike additional information in a sentence (which can be offset with commas or other parenthetical punctuation such as brackets or dashes), a restrictive modifier is not offset with punctuation, and this signifies it is essential to the meaning.

There is one notable exception to this. If a restrictive modifier is a phrase or clause which starts a sentence, it can be separated from the thing it modifies with a comma. (More on this below.)

Examples of Restrictive Modifiers

Here are some examples of restrictive modifiers (shaded):
  • The girl who stole the bread is back.
  • The ornament that the dog chewed was worth more than my car.
  • The horse which led the way for the whole race fell at the last fence.
In the examples above, the restrictive modifiers are all restrictive clauses functioning as adjectives. Notice how they are not offset with commas. The shaded text is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Look at these two examples:
  • My brother who lives in London is visiting on Saturday.
  • (This is a restrictive modifier. It is essential information to identify which of my brothers.)
  • My brother Mark, who lives in London, is visiting on Saturday.
  • (This is a non-restrictive modifier. We already know which of my brothers we're talking about. The text in bold is just additional information. That's why it's offset with commas.)

Adverbial Restrictive Modifiers and Other Types

Restrictive modifiers are not always adjective clauses. There are many other types. For example:
  • My brother with a house in London is visiting on Saturday.
  • (This is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective.)
  • Take the cake out of the oven when the alarm sounds.
  • (This is an adverbial clause functioning as an adverb of time.)

  • I'm leaving because it's raining.
  • (This is an adverbial clause functioning as an adverb of reason.)
Notice how none of them are offset with a comma (or commas).

Remember, anything that modifies something else in a way that is essential for meaning is a restrictive modifier. So, the following are all restrictive modifiers:
  • My vase
  • The vase
  • A vase
  • The blue vase
However, when people talk about restrictive modifiers, they tend to have adjective clauses and adverbial clauses in mind.

Use a Comma If Your Restrictive Modifier Is at the Front

When a restrictive modifier (usually an adverbial clause or phrase) is at the start of a sentence, it is offset with a comma. For example:
  • When the alarm sounds, take the cake out of the oven.
  • Because it's raining, I'm leaving.
Read more about commas to offset adverbial modifiers at the start of sentences.
Beware

Commas Will Affect the Meaning

The meaning of your sentence will be affected by your decision whether to use commas around a clause. Both examples below are grammatically sound, but they have different meanings.
  • My sister who is married won the lottery.
  • (This is a restrictive modifier. It specifies that I'm talking about my married sister, i.e., not my other unmarried sister or sisters.)
  • My sister, who is married, won the lottery.
  • (This suggests I have just one sister. I've also told you that she is married, but I could have omitted that information. The bold text is non-restrictive modifier.)
Read more about when to use a comma before who and which.