What Is a Non-restrictive Clause? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Non-restrictive Clause

A non-restrictive clause is a clause that provides additional, non-essential information. In other words, a non-restrictive clause is not needed to identify the word it modifies, i.e., it's just bonus information. As a non-restrictive clause is not essential to the meaning of a sentence, it is offset with commas (or some other parenthetical punctuation such as dashes).

non-restrictive clause

Non-restrictive Clauses Contrast with Restrictive Clauses

Here is another example of a non-restrictive clause.
  • Peter Jones , who plays goalkeeper for our village football team, has worked at his father's greengrocers for twenty years.
  • (The shaded text is a non-restrictive clause. It describes "Peter Jones," but it does not identify him. It is merely additional information about him. Deleting this clause would not affect the meaning.)
Non-restrictive clauses contrast with restrictive clauses. Look at this example of a restrictive clause:
  • The man who plays goalkeeper for our village football team has worked at his father's greengrocers for twenty years.
  • (The bold text is a restrictive clause. It describes "the man," and it identifies him. It is not just additional information. It is essential for meaning.)

Your Choice of Punctuation

You are not limited to commas when offsetting a non-restrictive clause. You can use parentheses (brackets) or dashes too. (See Reason 2 below.)

Read more about your choices of punctuation for offsetting a non-restrictive clause.

More Examples of Non-restrictive Clauses

Here are some more examples of non-restrictive clauses:
  • I went to London with John Baker, who lives next door.
  • (This is just additional information. It's a non-restrictive clause.)
  • Betty, who is still on the ferry, will arrive before 4 o'clock.
  • (This is just additional information. It's a non-restrictive clause.)
Read more about using commas with "which," "that," and "who."

Some More Examples of Non-restrictive Clauses

Here are some more examples of non-restrictive clauses in real-life quotes (non-restrictive clauses shaded):
  • Every journalist has a novel in him, which is an excellent place for it. (Historian Russell Lynes)
  • Humans are the only animals that have children on purpose with the exception of guppies, who like to eat theirs. (Journalist P J O'Rourke)
  • She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit. (Playwright W. Somerset Maugham)
  • You can talk about anything if you go about it the right way, which is never malicious. (comedian Rodney Carrington)

Why Should I Care about Non-restrictive Clauses?

When looking at writing errors, there are more issues associated with restrictive clauses than non-restrictive clauses. As a general observation, non-restrictive clauses do not cause too many snags. Nevertheless, here are two good reasons to give non-restrictive clauses a little more thought.

(Reason 1) Know when to use a comma before "who" or "which."

Writers often ask whether to put a comma before "who" and "which." The answer to that question is sometimes yes and sometimes no. It depends whether the "who" or "which" heads a restrictive clause or a non-restrictive clause.

Look at this example:
  • My brother, who lives in New York, caught coronavirus.
  • (This sentence suggests I have just one brother. I've also told you that he lives in New York, but I could have omitted that information. The shaded text is a non-restrictive clause.)
  • My brother who lives in New York caught coronavirus.
  • (In this sentence, the bold text is a restrictive clause. It specifies that I'm talking about my New York-based brother, i.e., not a different brother.)
Remember that if your adjective clause is essential to identify its noun, then there are no commas. If it's just additional information, use commas, dashes, or parentheses (brackets)...or delete it.
Test for a Non-restrictive Clause

If you'd happily put it in parentheses (brackets) or delete it, use commas.
The example above uses "who." Here's one with "which." There is a distinction between "who" and "which" because Brits are okay with a restrictive clause headed by "which," but, as a rule, Americans aren't.
  • I've enjoyed the benefits of this country, which has been very good to me. (Attorney Wendy Long)
  • (This is non-restrictive clause. It does not define the country (the word "this" does that job). The shaded clause is just additional information.)
  • How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese? (French President Charles De Gaulle)
  • (This is a restrictive clause. It defines the country. Those following British English writing conventions are okay with a restrictive clause headed by "which," but most Americans would use "that" instead of "which."
Read more about using "who," "which," and "that" (go to Issue 1 on this link).

(Reason 2) Know when to use a comma before "who" or "which."

Commas are the most common type of parenthetical punctuation, but, for certain effects, you can use others. Here are some guidelines:
Choice of
Parenthetical Punctuation
Pros and Cons

commas
(pro) normal-looking sentence
(con) commas are often confused with other commas in the sentence

brackets
(pro) parenthesis easily seen
(con) brackets make official letters look a little unorganized

dashes
(pro) parenthesis easily seen
(con) dashes look a little stark

Read more about your choices of punctuation for offsetting a non-restrictive clause.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What is a clause? What is a modifier? What are restrictive clauses? More about using commas with which, that, and who More about your choice of parentheses Glossary of grammatical terms