Posts Tagged restrictive clause

Commas with Who

One question I often receive is whether or not to use a comma with who. Let’s look at two examples, one with a comma and one without, and learn when to use the comma with who. Both examples come from the Associated Press, which generally has correct punctuation in its news stories.

Example 1: No Comma with Who

John Fenton Wheeler, an Associated Press foreign correspondent who was the last U.S. reporter expelled from Cold War-era Cuba, has died. (

In this example, the clause beginning with who tells the reader which correspondent. Here, “an Associated Press foreign correspondent” could refer to many people, a group of people. To tell the reader which person in this group the article is about, the who clause is necessary information.

The “official” name for the clause is restrictive clause. The clause restricts our attention from the group of people to just one person. It provides necessary information and cannot be separated from the word, correspondent, that it describes. As such, the writer correctly did not put a comma before who.

This sentence follows Zen Comma Rule V: Dont use commas to separate restrictive phrases and clauses begining with who.

Example 2: Comma with Who

Dave O’Hara, who covered Boston sports greats from Ted Williams to Larry Bird during a 50-year career with The Associated Press, died Wednesday. (

In this example, the entire clause beginning with who is separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. We see the comma before who and the comma after Press. Here, the entire clause provides additional description of Dave O’Hara. The information, while interesting, is not necessary to tell the reader which person is being described.

The “official” name for the clause is non-restrictive clause. The descriptive clause beginning with who does not restrict the readers’ attention from a group of people to just one person. In fact, it can’t: Dave O’Hara is already just one person. For this reason, the information is not necessary for the reader to know whom the article is describing. The clause can be removed, and the readers will still understand the message of the sentence, including the person about whom the writer is writing. As such, the writer correctly used a comma before who and another after Press, thus separating the clause from the rest of the sentence.

This sentence follows Zen Comma Rule U: Use commas to separate non-restrictive phrases and clauses starting with who.


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Tech Review Comma Oops

I just read an interesting review of the new Google Glass, which, by the way, is very, very cool. But that’s beside the point.

The writer had a chance to try out Google Glass, and he wrote a good article. Here’s the article:

Now, to the point. The writer has a good grasp of correct comma use, and by correctly using commas, he made his moderately complex sentences easy to read and understand. In fact, I only found three comma errors, a better-than-typical rate for online journalists.

Comma Error

One of the comma errors, though, was so egregious that it deserves some explanation. The writer wrote,

“What I did realize, is that Google needs to offer a solution for individuals who wear glasses.”

The comma error is the comma betwen realize and is. By placing a comma there, the writer breaks Zen Comma rule AJ: No commas between subjects and predicates. When we parse this sentence, we can see how the comma breaks this rule.

The main verb begins the predicate of the sentence. In this sentence, the main verb is “is.” In most sentences, including this one, the subject is just prior to the predicate. In this sentence, the subject is “What I did realize.”

Subject: “What I did realize”
Predicate: “is that Google needs to offer….”

The comma separates the subject from the predicate, and it needs to be removed to make this sentence correct.

Comma Rule

Why is this a problem? What’s the purpose of rule AJ?

Commas separate elements in sentences. However, the subject of a sentence must have a main verb to have meaning. Similarly, the predicate has no value, no meaning, unless it has a subject. As such, these two elements of the sentence cannot be separated. They work together to provide meaning.

Because they cannot be separated (or, because they must be together), we don’t separate them with a comma.

Commas Between Subjects and Predicates

“Hey,” you might be thinking, “I see commas between subjects and predicates all the time!” Yes, in some cases, we can have commas between subjects and predicates without breaking Zen Comma rule AJ. Here’s a correct example, also from the article.

“The right side of Glass, where the battery rests, is touch-sensitive.”

When we parse this sentence, we find the following.

Subject: “The right side of Glass”
Predicate: “is touch sensitive.”

Between the subject and predicate, we read the clause “where the battery rests.” This clause is an appositive for “The right side of Glass.” It is surrounded by commas, with the result that two commas are between the subject and predicate. Those commas are required by Zen Comma Rule  J: Separate non-restrictive appositives with commas.

If we take out the appositive, we also take out the commas. In other words, the commas are there because of the appositive, not to separate the subject and predicate. In fact, they tell the reader when the appositive begins and ends so that the reader can easily find the predicate and connect it to the subject.

In any case, this is not what is happening in the faulty sentence. The faulty sentences doesn’t have an appositive (or other clause requiring commas) between the subject and predicate. Even if there were a reason for commas, we would need two, not one, commas.

End result: The writer made a comma error. That comma needs to go.

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Commas with That and Which

I’ll answer two questions at the same time. Do you use that or which? Do you need commas with that and which?

To answer both questions, you need to understand restrictive and non-restrictive phrases and clauses. Here are the answers in brief.

1. Use which and commas with non-restrictive phrases and clauses.
2. Use that and no commas with restrictive phrases and clauses.

Now, let’s find out why.

Restrictive phrases and clauses: A restrictive phrase or clause points out which thing you are writing about.

Let’s say you have four filing cabinets in your office and that all but one cabinet is locked. The unlocked cabinet is the one next to the window. You need someone to come and lock the cabinet because you don’t have a key.

You decide to send an e-mail to the maintenance office. You need to tell the maintenance officer which cabinet is unlocked. You correctly write this statement:

“Please come to my office as soon as possible and lock the cabinet that is next to the window.” (The restrictive phrase is underlined.)  Read the rest of this entry »

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Bumbo Sits Motionless

The Koan

Bumbo sat motionless in the Temple of Meaning. His teacher asked what he was doing.
“I am learning to use commas,” Bumbo told him.
“You foolish student,” the teacher exclaimed. “If you do not act on what you know, your life will never be complete.”

The Explanation

Bumbo, the subject of this koan, isn’t doing anything. He thinks he is, but he is wrong. The teacher reminds him that a subject without an action is incomplete. He wants Bumbo to learn that a comma should not separate the predicate from the subject because a subject needs a predicate to make a complete sentence.

The Lesson

Every complete sentence needs two things: a subject and a predicate. These two parts are required and work together to make a complete sentence. The key word here is together.

Commas separate items in a sentence. The absence of a comma shows that they are connected. If we put a comma between the subject and predicate, we separate them. This is wrong because they need to be connected: they work together.

Wrong example: The author of the best-selling book on marketing, began planning his next book.

In this wrong example, the complete subject is The author of the best-selling book on marketing. The predicate, which begins with the main verb, is began planning his next book. This example is wrong because it has a comma between the subject and predicate. To fix this sentence, we remove the comma and join the subject and predicate.

The only time you can have a comma between the subject and predicate is when the end of the subject has some phrase or expression that requires a pair of commas. In that case, the commas are in the sentence not to separate the subject and predicate but to separate the phrase, as seen in the next example.

Correct example with commas: The author of the best-selling book on marketing, which he released the prior year, began planning his next book.

In this example, the comma before the main verb is part of a pair of commas to separate the non-restrictive phrase which he released the prior year. The first sentence of the explanation above also uses commas in this way.

Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, an instructive reference guide on the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.

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