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MUSC. MEDICAL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA. THE WRITING CENTER. Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Elements. Groups of words that modify nouns or pronouns may be essential to the meaning of a sentence,

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Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Elements

  • Groups of words that modify nouns or pronouns may be essential to the meaning of a sentence,

  • thus restrictive; on the other hand, they may add information that, while interesting, is not necessary

  • to our understanding, therefore nonrestrictive. Consider these examples:

    • All students who failed the exam must be retested tomorrow.

    • All freshman students, who are quite young, must attend orientation tomorrow.

  • In the first example, the adjective clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Clearly, students

  • who passed the exam need not retake it! In the second example, the word freshmansufficiently qualifies

  • the meaning. While the adjective clause enhances our understanding of these students, it does not add

  • essential meaning.

  • Restrictive and nonrestrictive elements come in three forms: adjective clauses (shown above), adjective

  • phrases, and appositives. Adjective phrases might be prepositional phrases or participles.

    • Joanne, with her red hair piled on top of her head, is tall and thin.

    • The woman with red hair is named Joanne.

    • Joanne, sporting a red baseball cap, stood out in the crowd.

    • The woman wearing the red and blue baseball cap is Joanne.

  • Note: An adjective modifying a proper noun is usually nonrestrictive. In the first and third examples, we

  • would be able to identify the woman because we have named her.

  • Appositives are nouns or pronouns that closely follow--and rename--another noun or pronoun.

    • Mr. Jonas, my teacher, is a fine person.

    • My teacher Mr. Jonas is a fine person.

  • The appositive is not essential in the first example. We have named the teacher. But in the second, we

  • must know his name. Otherwise the fine person might be anyone on the school faculty!

  • All of these examples illustrate the comma rule for restrictive and nonrestrictive elements. If the group of

  • words is restrictive (essential), no commas are needed. However, nonrestrictive (nonessential) elements are

  • set off by commas.

  • A final comment: Sometimes, commas determine meaning! Take, for example, the following two sentences:

    • That cake made with chocolate and coconut is my favorite.

    • That cake, made with chocolate and coconut, is my favorite.

  • In the first example, the writer might be at a family gathering with many dessert choices. The chocolate and

  • coconut identify the exact cake, so we have a restrictive modifier. But in the second, the writer has only one

  • cake from which to choose, so the flavor, while interesting, is not essential to the meaning.

  • Produced by MUSC's Writing Center - Under the direction of Professor Tom Waldrep