What are Restrictive and Non-restrictive Clauses?

What is a restrictive clause?

A restrictive clause defines the meaning of a noun or noun phrase and provides necessary information about the noun in the sentence. It’s not separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. Restrictive clauses can’t be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning; this is why they’re called restrictive – when you use a restrictive clause, you’re restricted to keeping it in the sentence to retain its overall meaning.

Example of a restrictive clause:

  • 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 that you recommended.

What is a non-restrictive clause?

A non-restrictive clause is a clause that provides additional, non-essential information. A non-restrictive clause isn’t necessary for clarifying the sentence’s meaning: it’s just bonus information. Non-restrictive clauses are usually embedded into the sentence with commas.

Example of a non-restrictive clause:

  • I went to London with John Baker, who lives next door.
  • Betty, still on the ferry, will arrive before 4 o’clock.

What is an essential vs. non-essential clause?

It can be challenging to tell apart restrictive and non-restrictive clauses because they’re both a type of relative clause.

A helpful way to remember the difference between non-restrictive and restrictive grammatical clauses is to nickname them non-essential and essential.

Restrictive clauses include vital information that defines the sentence, so they’re essential for understanding the meaning of it. Conversely, non-restrictive clauses are non-essential because they only offer additional information that’s not essential for understanding the sentence.

Example list: restrictive clause vs. non-restrictive clauses

Now that we have learned more about restrictive clauses vs. non-restrictive clauses, can your students identify the differences between restrictive clauses vs. non-restrictive clauses in this list of examples?

  • The man who lives next door has been arrested.
  • Would you lend me the book that you recommended last week?
  • The apple tree that produced no apples last year has loads of blossom.
  • Katie, who just graduated from university, is an accomplished figure skater.
  • Let’s find the book you recommended.
  • The man who plays goalkeeper for our village football team has worked at his father’s greengrocers for twenty years.
  • The lamp, which was given to me by Auntie Betty, is on the bedside table.

What are the functions of restrictive clauses vs. non-restrictive clauses?

Functions of a Restrictive Clause

A restrictive clause can have an identifying function. For example, take a look at this sentence with a restrictive clause:

  • The girl who lives next door is training to be a vet.

The restrictive clause is ‘who lives next door.’ It helps us identify who the ‘girl’ is and narrows down the information to clarify the sentence’s meaning. This sentence also has a restrictive clause:

  • Animals that have stripes can blend in with their surroundings.

The restrictive clause here is ‘that have stripes.’ If we didn’t include this clause, the sentence would read:

  • Animals can blend in with their surroundings.

The restrictive clause limits the sentence’s meaning to ‘animals that have stripes.’

It is essential to the sentence because not all animals have this capability.

Functions of a non-restrictive clause

The function of non-restrictive clauses is to provide additional but optional descriptions. The critical word here is optional: they aren’t essential to the sentence, and the sentence would read perfectly fine without this clause. It’s simply a bonus.

For example, the two sentences below are both functional and grammatically correct. However, the first sentence offers some extra information through the non-restrictive clause. On the other hand, the second sentence maintains the same meaning, even without the clause.

  • Cats, which are soft and fluffy, are one of my favorite animals.
  • Cats are one of my favorite animals.

The non-restrictive clause here is ‘which are soft and fluffy.’ Notice that it’s embedded into the sentence between commas.

What are the differences between restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers?

The different modifiers for these clauses serve different purposes. For example, modifiers in non-restrictive clauses can add information that is not essential to our understanding of the sentence. On the other hand, a restrictive clause modifier identifies or limits the reference of the noun it modifies. Use these simple explanations of the different modifiers below:

  • Restrictive clause modifier: A restrictive modifier is a word, phrase, or dependent clause which modifies another element in a way that is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
  • Non-restrictive clause modifier: A non-restrictive modifier adds information that is not essential to our understanding of the sentence. If we remove it from the sentence, the basic meaning of the sentence does not change.

Punctuating a restrictive clause vs. a non-restrictive clause

There’s one easy way to remember how to punctuate these clauses correctly.

Restrictive clauses are never used with commas, whereas non-restrictive clauses need to be added to the sentence with a comma or commas.

Choose your Reaction!