Restrictive Clause

by Craig Shrives

What Is a Restrictive Clause? (with Examples)

A restrictive clause is a clause that identifies the word it modifies. A restrictive clause is essential for meaning. A restrictive clause is not offset with commas. For example:
  • The boy who broke the window is at the door.
  • (The shaded text is a restrictive clause. It describes "the boy." More importantly though, it identifies the boy. It is not just additional information. It is essential for understanding.)
Restrictive clauses contrast with non-restrictive clauses.

Look at this example of a non-restrictive clause:
  • Simon Baxter, who is a deep-sea fisherman, is training to be a lion tamer.
  • (The bold text is a non-restrictive clause. It describes "Simon Baxter," but it does not identify him. It's just additional information about him. You could have put brackets around this text or even deleted it.)
restrictive clause

Easy Examples of Restrictive Clauses

In each example, the restrictive clause is shaded, and the noun it identifies is in bold.
  • The man who lives next door has been arrested.
  • The apple tree that produced no apples last year has loads of blossom.
  • Let's find the book you recommended.
Notice how the clauses identify their nouns (i.e., "the man," "the apple tree," and "the book"). Without the restrictive clauses, we wouldn't know which man, tree, or book we're talking about.

Defining and Non-defining Clauses

Restrictive clauses are often called "defining clauses," and non-restrictive clauses are often called "non-defining" clauses. These terms are more intuitive because defining a noun is a clearer idea than restricting a noun.

Real-Life Examples of Restrictive Clauses

  • It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues. (President Abraham Lincoln)
  • The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. (Philosopher Saint Augustine)
  • (Restrictive clauses can modify pronouns too.)
  • I live in that solitude which is painful in youth but delicious in the years of maturity. (Physicist Albert Einstein)
  • (This restrictive clauses starts with "which." Many in the US consider this a British convention. Americans prefer "that." See Issue 2 below.)
  • A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation. (Writer Mark Twain)
  • Batman can handle sadness and depression. You throw happiness at him? That's something that riles him. That's something that he's not used to. (Author Tom King)
  • How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese? (French President Charles De Gaulle)
  • Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them. (Poet Paul Valery)
  • Given a choice between two theories, take the one which is funnier.
  • I love that I have a job that I love. (Russian skater Ekaterina Gordeeva)
  • Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. (Writer Edgar Allan Poe)
  • (this quotation has three restrictive clauses, including a restrictive clause within a restrictive clause.)
There are four common issues related to restrictive clauses:

(Issue 1) Restrictive clauses are not offset with commas.

Don't put commas around a restrictive clause. Look at the examples above again. There are no commas around any of the restrictive clauses (i.e., the shaded texts).

Restrictive clauses contrast with non-restrictive clauses. Unlike restrictive clauses, non-restrictive clauses are not essential for meaning. They just provide bonus information. Non-restrictive clauses are so unessential, they can be deleted, put in brackets or more commonly offset with commas.

Look at these two sentences:
  • My cousins who live in the country are scared of sheep.
  • (The shaded text is a restrictive clause. It identifies my cousins as the ones from the country, i.e., not some other cousins.)
  • My cousins, who live in the country, are scared of sheep.
  • (In this example, there are commas around "who live in the country." The commas tell us it is a non-restrictive clause; i.e., it's just bonus information. You'd now infer that all my cousins are scared of sheep. We could delete the non-restrictive clause or put it in brackets if we wanted. That's a good test for a non-restrictive clause:

    Test for a Non-restrictive Clause

    If you'd happily put it in brackets or delete it, use commas.
    Writers often ask whether they put a comma before "who" and "which." Of course, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. It depends whether the "who" or "which" heads a restrictive clause or a non-restrictive clause.

    Let's imagine we're translating a quotation by French poet Paul Valery:
    • Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.
    • Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs, which properly concern them.
    Should we use a comma or not?

    Let's remove the shaded text to test if it's a non-restrictive clause:
    • Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs.
    This makes sense, but it's too broad. Valery didn't mean "all affairs." The clause "which properly concern them" was essential to the meaning. It wasn't just bonus information. It was a restrictive clause. The version without the comma is correct.

    (Issue 2) Brits like "which," but Americans don't.

    In British English, most restrictive clauses start with "who," "which," or "that." Americans, however, don't like using "which" to start a restrictive clause. They way prefer using "that."
    • The apple tree which produced no apples last year has loads of blossom. () but ()
    • (This is acceptable to Brits but not to most Americans.)
    • The apple tree that produced no apples last year has loads of blossom. () and ()
    • (This is acceptable to Brits and Americans.)
    So, most Americans would have gone with the following:
    • Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs that properly concern them.
    • (Remember that Americans don't like using "which" to start a restrictive clause.)
    It's worth saying, at this point, that "that" never starts a non-restrictive clause (not in British English or American English). So, you'll never get a comma before an adjective clause that starts with "that." "That" is strictly for restrictive clauses.
    • "Almas" caviar, that costs over 20,000 per kilo, comes from the Iranian Beluga fish and is the most expensive food in the world.
    • (You can't head a non-restrictive clause with "that." Here, "which" would have been okay.)

    (Issue 3) Some people won't like you using "that" for people .

    As a general rule, "who" is used for people, and "which" and "that" are used for things. However, it is not uncommon to see "that" used with people.
    • I think that anybody that smiles automatically looks better. (Actress Diane Lane)
    • All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move. (US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin)
    It would be too harsh to mark these as wrong, but be aware that some of your readers might prefer "who" instead of "that" when referring to people (especially in formal work). Using "who" instead of "that" with people is definitely a bit crisper.

    (Issue 4) Sometimes, omitting "which" or "that" will give you a more natural-sounding sentence.

    With a restrictive clause, you can often create a more natural-sounding sentence by removing the "who," "that," or "which."
    • The dog which you fed is outside.
    • (Using "which" with a restrictive clause is okay for Brits but not Americans. That said, it sounds a bit contrived, even to the British ear.)
    • The dog that you fed is outside.
    • (Using "that" with a restrictive clause is okay for Brits and Americans. It sounds less contrived than using "which," but it's still fairly unnatural sounding.)
    • The dog you fed is outside.
    • (This is okay for all, and it sounds natural.)
    The goal is to write a natural-sounding sentence with a clear structure and a clear meaning. Sometimes, this is best achieved with the "that" option, and sometimes it's best achieved with the nothing option. Here's a grammatically sound sentence that highlights why you can't just go with the nothing option every single time.
    • The mouse the cat the dog chased chased ate the cheese.
    Here it is again with the "that" option.
    • The mouse that the cat that the dog chased chased ate the cheese.
    • (It's still a tough sentence to follow, but using the "that" option helps to unpick it.)
    The most common decision you'll have to make is whether to include or omit a "that." If including the "that" makes your sentence clearer, use it. If it clashes aesthetically with another nearby "that," think about omitting it. Let's have a play with this quotation:
    • Buying food from farmers that I know adds that human element that I love. (Chef Alex Guarnaschelli)
    I prefer this:
    • Buying food from farmers that I know adds that human element that I love.
    • (We now only have one "that" in the sentence, instead of three, and as a bit of a bonus we've avoided the "that"-for-people issue.)

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    See Also

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

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