non-defining relative clause

Discussion in 'English Only' started by sevengem, Mar 20, 2012.

  1. sevengem

    sevengem Senior Member

    Chinese
    Sometimes I just have no idea when to use a defining relative clause and when to use a non-defining one. Can you tell me which one is better in each group?Why?


    1. The firemen haven't managed to put out the fire which broke out at 5 a.m.

    The firemen haven't managed to put out the fire, which broke out at 5 a.m.

    2. The report which is found in today's newspaper describes animal rights problems.

    The report, which is found in today's newspaper, describes animal rights problems.

    3. Some African countries which are very poor have to be helped by international organisations.

    Some African countries, which are very poor, have to be helped by international organisations.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 20, 2012
  2. DocPenfro

    DocPenfro Senior Member

    Little England
    English - British
    (1a) "The firemen haven't managed to put out the fire which broke out at 5 a.m.". If you omit the comma, it is suggesting the possibility that there were several fires, and the only one which is still burning is the one that broke out at 5 a.m.
    (1b) "The firemen haven't managed to put out the fire, which broke out at 5 a.m." If you include the comma, then "which broke out at 5 a.m." is referring specifically to "the fire", i.e. there is only one fire, and it is still burning.

    (2a) "The report which is found in today's newspaper describes animal rights problems." Without the comma, this suggests that there are many reports; perhaps the newspaper publishes one every day.
    (2b) "The report, which is found in today's newspaper, describes animal rights problems." With the commas: there is only one report, and it is to be found in today's newspaper.

    (3a) "Some African countries which are very poor have to be helped by international organisations." Without the comma: there are several very poor African countries. Some of them have to be helped; some of them don't.
    (3b) "Some African countries, which are very poor, have to be helped by international organisations." With the commas: the international organisations only have to help the very poor African countries (and not the wealthy ones).
     
  3. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    This is a constant source of disagreement, particularly between AE/BE speakers.

    According to the style used by American newspapers (which generate millions of words a day):

    1. The firemen haven't managed to put out the fire which broke out at 5 a.m. :thumbsdown:

    The firemen haven't managed to put out the fire, which broke out at 5 a.m. :thumbsup:

    2. The report which is found in today's newspaper describes animal rights problems.:thumbsdown:

    The report, which is found in today's newspaper, describes animal rights problems.:thumbsup: (This presumes, however, that the report is found in other newspapers as well. Practically speaking, however, we don't have "problems" with "animal rights." We do have problems with people mistreating animals and we have problems with people who break the law and destroy property in their effort to impose what they think are "animal rights." See: HERE.)

    3. Some African countries which are very poor have to be helped by international organisations. :thumbsdown:

    Some African countries, which are very poor, have to be helped by international organisations.:thumbsup: (this is grammatically correct, but highly illogical since South Africa, Saudi Arabia and some other countries on the African continent are far from poor.)
     
  4. Lyndon Senior Member

    N/A
    There must be hundreds of threads about this, but ...


    The question (When to use a defining relative clause and when to use a non-defining one) depends entirely on what you want to say.

    If you are using the clause to distinguish one thing from another, you need a defining clause. If the clause just gives us a bit more information about the thing we are discussing, you need a non-defining (= describing) clause.

    In "My sister who lives in London is younger than my sister who lives in Paris" I'm using the two 'who lives in ...' clauses to define which sister I mean in each case, so they are defining clauses.

    In "My sister, who lives in London, is very beautiful" the 'who lives in ...' clause just gives some more info about my sister. I could easily make two separate sentences "My sister is very beautiful" + "My sister lives in London", so it is a non-defining clause.


    1. The firemen haven't managed to put out the fire which broke out at 5 a.m., but they quickly put out the other fire which broke out at 6 a.m. -- obviously defining clauses because they tell us which fire we are talking about.

    The firemen haven't managed to put out the fire. Some additional information is that the fire broke out at 5 a.m. so that would be non-defining.


    2. The report which is found in today's newspaper describes animal rights problems, while the report which is found in last week's newspaper describes mineral exploration. These are defining clauses.

    The report describes animal rights problems. + Oh, by the way, the report is found in today's newspaper. Non-defining.


    EDIT :
    P.S. I'm disturbed to read, in sdgraham's post, that defining relative clauses are stylistically un-acceptable in American newspapers. I hope that applies only to newspapers, and not to speech and literature. :eek: :)
     
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2012
  5. DocPenfro

    DocPenfro Senior Member

    Little England
    English - British
    How do you put a comma into your speech?
     
  6. Lyndon Senior Member

    N/A
    Excellent point. I normally use a slight pause, sometimes with a change of inflection. ;)
     
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2012
  7. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    :tick::thumbsup:
    They are also known as restrcitive and non-restrictive, given their distinct effect on the meaning they convey. Style is not a part of the choice if it alters the meaning.
     
  8. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Just to say - I believe that the point sdg was making is that many AmE style guides recommend "that" for restrictive relative clauses, and limit "who"/"which" to non-restrictive relative clauses.
    (At least, that's what I've understood from previous discussions here - he'll correct me if I'm wrong...:D)
     
  9. Lyndon Senior Member

    N/A
    If that's the case, then my "My sister who lives in London is younger than my sister who lives in Paris" is an illegal sentence because I've used 'who' in defining/restrictive relative clauses.

    I don't accept that.
     
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2012
  10. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    As a test, consider the commas as parentheses. And in British English, parentheses and all they contain can be deleted from the sentence without changing its basic meaning. So if you have a phrase between a pair of commas, it should not be part of the essential meaning of the sentence (assuming you are using commas properly).

    The report which is found in today's newspaper describes animal rights problems.
    The report, which is found in today's newspaper, describes animal rights problems.

    All African countries which are very poor have to be helped by international organisations.
    All African countries, which are very poor,
    have to be helped by international organisations.

    As you can see, these sentences, especially the last pair, can have very different meanings. Beware!


     
  11. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    Until he returns to account for himself, I will say "Ahhhhh - that's what he meant". Thank you, Loob!

    Indeed, I am originally a BrE speaker and my distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive is made solely by the presence or absence of the comma, with scant attention paid to the choice between that and which. In AmE it seems there is little personal feedom in that choice (although I can never remember which is which, or that is that :eek:).
     
  12. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I find both versions of all three sentences equally correct. Whether to include commas depends on the context, on what you want to say, and on how you want to connect the ideas.

    In the second version of sentence 1, I assume that context has predefined "the fire" (the one this article is about, for example). Similarly I assume a context that predefines "the report" for the second version of sentence 2. In this light, the corresponding first versions seem to be saying the context has not predefined these things. I don't believe the first version of sentence 1 says categorically that there are multiple fires or that only one fire broke out at 5 a.m. That would still have to come from the context. And I don't believe the first version of sentence 2 tells us whether there are multiple reports, or whether there is only one in today's newspaper.

    Sentence 3, with some, means very nearly the same thing with or without the commas, and both versions may refer to the very same countries. Neither version suggests to me that all African countries might be poor, and neither version tells me whether all the poor ones have to be helped or whether all the ones that have to be helped are poor.
     
  13. Wilma_Sweden

    Wilma_Sweden Moderatös

    Lund, Sweden
    Swedish (Scania)
    This is what I was taught as well - a restrictive relative clause is unremovable, not surrounded by commas and begins with the pronoun that, while a non-restrictive clause is removable, surrounded by commas and begins with who or which (general rule of thumb). There is a nice summary in the Wikipedia article about English relative clauses...
     
  14. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    That seems to be the American rule; I think in Britain we'd delete the words in bold or add "sometimes".
     
  15. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I wonder if Sevengem is asking how one can tell whether a clause is defining or non-defining, when one hears it in one's mind's ear. Certainly this was the point which used to puzzle some young pupils I once tried to teach this point.

    I used to tell them to think of the noun which was being qualified - I used to avoid long words - and decide whether the clause gave us more information about this noun (non-defining), or whether it told us which of several possible examples of the noun we should be considering (defining). They seemed to find this advice helpful, and to give what I regarded as the right answers when they started to apply the advice seriously.

    The thread is full of examples, and good advice, so I won't say more.
     
  16. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Actually, Wilma, the Wiki summary doesn't say "use only 'that' in restrictive relative clauses": it says "don't use 'that' in non-restrictive relative clauses" - which I think is the norm in both BrE and AmE:). That said, I do recall a number of AmE speakers saying they were taught not to use 'who/which' in restrictive relative clauses, though it's clearly not universal in AmE: see Forero's post 12 above, for example. In BrE, use of 'who/which' rather than 'that' in a restrictive relative clause makes the sentence - to my mind at least - slightly more formal.
    That looks like a very helpful way of distinguishing between the two types of relatives, TT:thumbsup:
     
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2012
  17. coolieinblue Senior Member

    Seoul,Korea
    Korean
    sevengem,
    I think you can always leave out the comma when you can presume the readers can understand which one of the type you are talking about.
     
  18. JulianStuart

    JulianStuart Senior Member

    Sonoma County CA
    English (UK then US)
    I don't think so. Only is some very unusual situations will you be able to tell, unambiguously, whether it is restrictive or non-restrictive. For non-restrictive cases, the commas are (nearly always) essential. Even if you could tell simply by logic, it would be confusing to those who use commas for the non-restrictive sense.
    "The plane that crashed at 9pm was carrying 100 passengers." This would imply that there was another one that crashed at perhaps 8pm, possibly carrying a different number of passengers? The non-restrictive version would be "The plane, which crashed at 9pm, was carrying 100 passengers". Even though there is only a theoretical possibility that there was another plane crash, we would still not omit the commas.
     
  19. ribran

    ribran Senior Member

    Austin, Texas
    English - American
    Wasn't it Fowler who "invented" the American "rule"?
     
  20. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    I'd be very surprised, Riley. I don't think he went in for inventing rules. I'll have a look.

    Here's the passage.

    This may be the most germane part:

    For (1) a non-defining clause should always be separated from the antecedent by a stop; (2) a defining clause should never be so separated unless it is either preceded by a parenthesis indicated by stops, or coordinated with a former defining clause or with adjectives belonging to the antecedent;

    So you may be right, though I think, as your inverted commas suggest, that Fowler is making an observation about best practice, rather than inventing anything. Whether he was the first to make this observation I doubt.
     
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2012
  21. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Writing a letter this morning, trying to explain to an English person the precise meaning, here in La France Profonde, of the expression l'humour anglais I found myself defining it as

    an obvious attempt at a joke, which lamentably fails to be funny.

    I certainly didn't mean

    an obvious attempt at a joke which lamentably fails to be funny.

    It was the attempt which failed, not the joke, though it's a nice point. I suppose even the English aren't thought to be choosing jokes for their lack of comic quality.
     
  22. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    To say that 'that' rather than 'which' must be used for a defining clause seems illogical. 'That' is the more general term of the two. 'That' can refer to anything, 'which' can refer to things but not persons and 'who' can refer to persons but not things.
     
  23. coolieinblue Senior Member

    Seoul,Korea
    Korean
    Thank you very much for the elucidation, JulianStuart.
     
  24. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    I think that indicating which noun is meant to be defined is a good use of a comma before a defining relative clause.

    I take this which clause as a defining clause that needs to follow a comma. The way I read it out loud, obvious and lamentably both receive stress and might be considered "parallel", but I think the structure works with or without this "parallelism":

    an obvious attempt at a joke, which fails to be funny
    an attempt at a joke, which fails to be funny

    The comma is needed to separate the defining clause from the prepositional phrase of which it is not meant to be part. I think we know it is a defining clause because of its position in a definition.

    I really think neither the comma or its absence nor the choice of pronouns necessarily indicates whether a relative clause is "defining", nor do we always have to know.

    [How is that for iconoclastic?]
     
  25. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southwest France
    English - England
    Hi Forero,

    Do you agree that without the comma it risks meaning that it's the joke which fails to be funny rather than the attempt?
     
  26. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Yes. The comma keeps the clause from becoming subordinate to the preposition.

    Thank you for the illustrative example of the need for a comma (sometimes) just before a defining relative clause.
     
  27. Wilma_Sweden

    Wilma_Sweden Moderatös

    Lund, Sweden
    Swedish (Scania)
    I did mention this being a very general rule of thumb, and if I should forget which relative pronoun to use, the summary table in Wikipedia is helpful as a quick reference. As a non-native speaker, I can't rely on what 'sounds right/informal/formal'.
     

Share This Page