To Restrict or Not to Restrict: That Is the Question



Who, that, or which; restrictive or non-restrictive: Most of us have at some point had to grapple with interpretation, pronoun choice, and punctuation for a statement containing essential or non-essential information. For example, what would be succinct within the following statements?

Jayla always orders the surf and turf that the master chef prepares for her.
Jayla always orders the surf and turf, which the master chef prepares for her.
Jayla always orders the surf and turf which the master chef prepares for her.

The coach who is an inspiration to the team is Mr. Frogg.
The coach, who is an inspiration to the team, is Mr. Frogg.
The coach that is an inspiration to the team is Mr. Frogg.

It’s been a little while since we last reviewed restrictive and non-restrictive elements, so we thought now would be a good time to revisit this relevant and oft-questioned subject.

Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Defined

Non-restrictive (non-essential) adjective clauses and phrases follow and do not limit the words they modify. They will not affect the main clause’s meaning and clarity if omitted. They offer parenthetical information that is set off by commas and indicated by either which or who.

Jayla always orders the surf and turf, which the master chef prepares for her. (There is only one selection of surf and turf, and the master chef prepares it for her.)

The coach, who is an inspiration to the team, is Mr. Frogg. (Mr. Frogg is the sole coach of the team.)

Restrictive (essential) adjective clauses and phrases follow and limit the words they modify. They affect the main clause’s meaning and clarity if omitted. They provide vital information that is typically indicated by that or who and are not set off by commas.

Jayla orders the surf and turf that the master chef prepares for her. (There is a particular surf and turf, and Jayla orders it when the master chef can make it for her.)

The coach who is an inspiration to the team is Mr. Frogg. OR
The coach that is an inspiration to the team is Mr. Frogg.
(There is more than one coach, but Mr. Frogg is the one who gives the team inspiration. Both who and that can refer to people restrictively; that and which will refer to things.)

Can Which Be Restrictive?

English-grammar prescriptivists have tended to adhere to a strict use of which for non-restrictive elements and that for restrictive ones. However, many style and grammar authorities have expressed that the guideline is broader than may be supposed.

Professional writers and journalists will often use which or that interchangeably for restrictive elements according to style and preference, particularly when doing so favors better form.

Examples
That is the team which is sure to win the pennant. (The relative clause in this context is restrictive in meaning. We would typically use that to restrict, but which helps to avoid a potentially undesirable close repetition of the same word: That is the team that is sure…)

That which is good for the mind can also be good for the soul. (Here again we are flexible with signaling restrictive information to avoid a construct such as That that is…)

Greater debate might form around our previous example Jayla always orders the surf and turf which the master chef prepares for her. In this case, both that and which can serve as the restrictive pronoun depending on the writer’s preference.

However, the rationale for using which here can be less clear to the reader, who might pause to consider if the clause is missing a comma. In a statement such as this one, we will often best serve the reader by using that to remove all doubt about restriction.

Through mastery of restrictive and non-restrictive components, we become more adept at ensuring readers know what is crucial to clarity and what is extra information we offer.

 

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the restrictive or non-restrictive pronoun for each sentence.

1. She is one of the directors [that/which] have a distinctive visual style.

2. Let’s visit the park [which/that] has the opulent rose garden.

3. That [which/that] can be said about him can likewise be said about her.

4. Timothy’s father is Mr. Bowles, [that/who] will speak at the graduation ceremony.

 

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. She is one of the directors [that] have a distinctive visual style.

2. Let’s visit the park [that] has the opulent rose garden.

3. That [which] can be said about him can likewise be said about her.

4. Timothy’s father is Mr. Bowles, [who] will speak at the graduation ceremony.

 

Posted on Tuesday, July 7, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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8 Comments on To Restrict or Not to Restrict: That Is the Question

8 responses to “To Restrict or Not to Restrict: That Is the Question”

  1. Sandra says:

    This is regarding the sentence, “The coach that is an inspiration to the team is Mr. Frogg.” Sounds wrong to me (old school here). If you used “The person” instead of “The coach,” wouldn’t you use “who” instead of “that”?

  2. Greg Olsen says:

    The lawnmower which is broken is in the garage.

    The lawnmower that is broken is in the garage.

    Rather different sentences, no?

    • That is a good example of how we are well served by adhering to the use of which for nonrestrictive clauses and setting these clauses off with commas.
      The lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage tells us that the only lawnmower we have sits broken in the garage.
      The lawnmower that is broken is in the garage tells us that the broken lawnmower is in the garage and not elsewhere. There may be other lawnmowers there and elsewhere.

      The lawnmower which is broken is in the garage tells us only that a broken lawnmower is in the garage.

  3. Annie says:

    Thank you for such a great article. In the first sentence, I see that “have” has been used. I know this is correct, but I’m finding it difficult to understand why the plural verb has been used.

    • Our Rule 8 of Subject-Verb Agreement says, “With words that indicate portions … we are guided by the noun after of. If the noun after of is singular, use a singular verb. If it is plural, use a plural verb.” In the phrase “most of us,” the portion word most is followed by of and the plural pronoun us. Therefore, we used the plural verb have.

  4. Steve Wilson says:

    Yesterday, I didn’t know what a grammarian was. Today, it seems I need one. I’m hoping you can help, or steer me to someone who can.

    At issue is a dispute with my own condominium association over their refusal to hold an Annual Meeting of the homeowners. It seems pretty clear to me that state law requires such a meeting but the association has all but convinced an arbitrator that, for lack of a missing comma, it does not.

    Here’s what the law says:

    An annual meeting of the unit owners must be held at the location provided in the association bylaws and, if the bylaws are silent as to the location, the meeting must be held within 45 minutes of the condominium property.

    Note there is no comma after the words “must be held.” The association argues the missing comma changes the intent of the law from a mandate to hold an annual meeting and to a provision of where such a meeting must be held if, in fact, an association decided it wanted to hold one.

    Interestingly, the association Bylaws say essentially the same thing with the comma after the words “shall be held”:

    The annual meeting of Members shall be held, at the office of the Association or such other place as may be specified in the notice of the meeting, between January 2 and April 30 of each year on a date and at a time set by the Board of Directors.

    The association is arguing that the Bylaws are not determinative (even as to intent that an annual meeting must be held) since a statute itself always takes priority over anything a Bylaw might say.

    I know, you must be angry when people argue over such things but there’s an underlying issue why its so important to have an annual meeting, which is why it’s codified into law and bylaw. And why I’m spending my time on this.

    So, what say you? Is there some authority I can point to to explain what seems like common sense to me? Or someone/somewhere else to whom I could turn to get this resolved?

    • We are not at all angry about such arguments as they refocus people’s attention on the importance of clear communication. In fact, we ran two articles in 2017-2018 about a dispute caused by the lack of a comma that cost a dairy millions of dollars (Lack of Commas Costs Company Millions in Dispute and Oxford Comma Dispute Settled).

      Before we proceed, we need to mention that none of us at GrammarBook.com are attorneys, and nothing we say should be construed as legal advice. We are merely providing our opinions on grammar and punctuation usage. That being said, both the state law and the association’s bylaws could have been written more clearly. However, regardless of the comma flaws, it appears to us that the language is sufficiently clear in both cases that an annual meeting is to be held.

      Possible clarifications:
      State law – An annual meeting of the unit owners must be held at the location provided in the association bylaws. If the bylaws are silent as to the location, the annual meeting must be held within 45 minutes of the condominium property.
      Association Bylaws – The annual meeting of Members shall be held at the office of the Association or such other place as may be specified in the notice of the meeting, between January 2 and April 30 of each year, on a date and at a time set by the Board of Directors.

      Legal documents have their own set of rules. We recommend consulting either The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation published by the Harvard Law Review Association or the ALWD Citation Manual: A Professional System of Citation prepared and published by the Association of Legal Writing Directors and Darby Dickerson.

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