This is Part Four in our Grammar How-To Series.
I’ll be brief. It matters, though maybe not the way you think it does. Or maybe exactly the way you think it does. Take the test and find out.
1. Choose the sentence that makes the most sense.
a) Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” that is about a crazy guy who bricks up his enemy behind a wall is an excellent read.
b) Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” that is about a crazy guy who bricks up his wife behind a wall, is an excellent read.
c) Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which is about a crazy guy who buries an old man beneath his floorboards, seems familiar somehow.
2. Choose the sentence that makes the most sense.
a) I owe a debt of gratitude to John Steinbeck, whose novel The Grapes of Wrath motivated me to clean my room, do my dishes, and accomplish anything that was not reading his novel.
b) I also am indebted to Ernest Hemingway who wrote The Old Man and the Sea and gave me a deeper appreciation for allegory and a powerful dislike of fishing.
c) Finally, I would like to thank Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick that cured my insomnia and redoubled my determination to avoid ocean fishing.
Answers: 1. c 2. a
Let’s start with what the sticklers say. For those grammarians with a dash up their semicolon, that should only be used for restrictive clauses, and which for nonrestrictive clauses. The part of me that gets her hyphens in a wad over these issues kind of likes that. The truth, though, is that more and more people are using which restrictively, and it’s particularly common in British English. So if you talk about lifts and torches, or if you’re a free spirit when it comes to your grammar, I can’t prevent you from continuing on your wayward path.
So what’s a restrictive clause?
You use them when you need to restrict the number of things you could be talking about. The following sentences contain italicized restrictive clauses:
I need a theme that will engage readers in this fascinating grammar post.
Unfortunately, the only theme that I can come up with relates to the movie that I watched last night.
That means the theme that will elucidate the mysteries of relative clauses for you is Jurassic Park.
In each of those cases, the italicized segment is restrictive because it helps identify exactly which theme I’m talking about. For example, in the first one, I don’t want just any theme—I need one that will fascinate (ignore the jibe that just came to the tip of your tongue). Also, the only themes on the planet are not “movies I watched last night” and “Jurassic Park” (though it did seem that way to me at the time), so it makes sense for me to make those clauses restrictive.
What, then, is a nonrestrictive clause?
Think of it like a parenthetical aside—something that’s not strictly necessary for your sentence to retain its meaning. Examples of nonrestrictive clauses are italicized below:
Under her seat Lex found a flashlight, which seemed a useful tool at the time.
And yet is a flashlight, which nobody told her to turn on, really a useful tool when you are hiding from a large carnivorous dinosaur?
The flashlight, which attracts the attention of the light- and motion-sensitive T-rex, is not a useful tool for Lex at this time.
In the first and second examples, even if I got rid of which seemed a useful tool at the time and which nobody told her to turn on, you’d still know which flashlight I’m talking about. It would be pointless to restrict my meaning to only flashlights that seemed useful at the time, because there was only one flashlight in the car. In the third example, as Lex should have known, there was no flashlight in the world that would not attract the attention of the dinosaur overhead; thus I’m at liberty to use a nonrestrictive clause.
What about who?
Who (or whose, whom, etc.) can be used with either restrictive or nonrestrictive clauses. Sadly, however, you still have to know the difference between the two, because you need to know where to put your commas.
Commas should always be used to set off your nonrestrictive clauses. No commas means your nonrestrictive clause is suddenly restrictive, no matter what word you’ve used to begin it.
For example, it would not make sense to write Lex who was lucky not to die during the flashlight debacle responds poorly to life-threatening situations. There are not two Lexes in Jurassic Park (which is a good thing, because otherwise nobody would have survived the movie), so there’s no need for you to make the clause restrictive by omitting the comma. It would be better to write Lex, who was lucky not to die during the flashlight debacle, responds poorly to life-threatening situations.
It’s a good idea, however, to use a restrictive clause in the sentence The grandchild who got stuck in the tree was only marginally more intelligent. Since there are two grandchildren in the movie, the phrase who got stuck in the tree restricts my meaning and lets you know which of the foolish kids I’m talking about.