Grammar Tips: Restrictive Clauses
  • 5-minute read
  • 3rd October 2023

Grammar Tips: Restrictive Clauses

Restrictive clauses are a common proofreading pitfall. Understanding how to use them correctly can significantly improve your writing. In this post, we’ll explore what the basics of clauses are, what restrictive clauses are, how they differ from nonrestrictive clauses, and what writers need to know about using restrictive clauses effectively.

What Is a Clause?

Before we dive into restrictive clauses, let’s define what a clause is. A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate (verb). Independent and dependent clauses are the two main types.

Independent Clauses

Independent clauses are complete sentences on their own, expressing a clear thought or idea. For example, She loves to read.

Dependent Clauses

Dependent clauses cannot stand alone as complete sentences and need to be combined with an independent clause to form a complete thought. For example, Because she loves to read is a dependent clause.

What Is a Restrictive Clause?

A restrictive clause, also known as an essential or defining clause, is a dependent clause that provides essential information about the noun it modifies. This clause restricts the meaning of the noun by specifying which one the writer or speaker is referring to. Restrictive clauses are not separated by commas and are crucial to the meaning of the sentence. For example:

The book that she lent me is fantastic.

In the above sentence, the restrictive clause that she lent me specifies which book we’re talking about, making the clause essential to the sentence’s meaning.

What Is a Nonrestrictive Clause?

Conversely, a nonrestrictive clause, also known as a nonessential or nondefining clause, is a dependent clause that provides additional, nonessential information about the noun it modifies. Nonrestrictive clauses are separated from the main clause by commas and can be removed from the sentence without altering the core meaning. For example:

My friend, who is an avid reader, lent me a fantastic book.

In this sentence, the nonrestrictive clause who is an avid reader adds information about the friend that is not essential to understanding that the friend lent the book.

What Do Writers Need to Know About Restrictive Clauses?

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s delve into what writers need to know about using restrictive clauses effectively.


We use restrictive clauses to pinpoint the specific noun being referred to in a sentence. Without them, the sentence may become ambiguous or unclear. Ensure that your restrictive clauses are well placed to maintain clarity in your writing.

No Commas

Remember that restrictive clauses do not have commas around them. This is a key feature distinguishing restrictive clauses from nonrestrictive ones.

Essential Information

Restrictive clauses are essential to the sentence’s meaning. Removing them would change the intended message, so use them when you need to define or narrow down who or what they’re referring to.

Punctuation Matters

Proper punctuation is crucial for distinguishing between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Misplacing commas can alter the meaning of your sentences.

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What Is a Relative Pronoun?

We use a relative pronoun to introduce a relative (restrictive or nonrestrictive) clause. Relative pronouns serve as a bridge between the main clause and the relative clause, connecting the two and showing how they’re related.

Relative pronouns include who, whom, whose, which, and that. Their primary function is to introduce and relate the relative clause to a specific noun (the antecedent) in the main clause. These relative clauses can be restrictive or nonrestrictive, and this is where they tie in to the concept of restrictive clauses.

Restrictive Relative Clauses

In the following sentence, the restrictive relative clause that is parked in the driveway specifies which car is being referred to, and that is the relative pronoun. Removing the clause would change the meaning of the sentence.

The car that is parked in the driveway belongs to my neighbor.

In the next sentence, the restrictive relative clause who won the lottery defines which person is being discussed; who is the relative pronoun. The clause is essential to the sentence’s meaning.

The person who won the lottery is celebrating today.

And in this next sentence, the restrictive relative clause that I borrowed from the library identifies the specific book being discussed and is crucial for clarity:

The book that I borrowed from the library was an excellent read.

Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses

In the following sentence, the nonrestrictive relative clause who is a talented musician (the relative pronoun is who) provides additional information about the sister but is not essential to knowing who the subject is:

My sister, who is a talented musician, just released her first album.

In the next sentence, the nonrestrictive relative clause which stands in Paris (can you guess which word is the relative pronoun?) adds extra information about the Eiffel Tower but doesn’t change the fact that it’s a famous landmark:

The Eiffel Tower, which stands in Paris, is a famous landmark.

In this final example, the nonrestrictive relative clause which is red offers more details about John’s new car without altering the fact that it’s his car:

John’s new car, which is red, is catching the attention of passersby.

The use of commas helps to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses.

Understanding restrictive clauses is important for any writer. These clauses help you specify and clarify the nouns in your sentences, making your writing more precise and effective. Remember the key differences between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses and use the clauses strategically to enhance your communication. With practice, you’ll master the art of using restrictive clauses to elevate your writing and grammar skills.

Don’t forget, if you need a little extra help with your writing, Proofed’s team of expert editors are here to help. We’ll proofread your work to give it that final polish and ensure it’s publication-ready. Not sure whether our service is right for you? We’ll happily proofread a 500-word sample of your work for free!

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