Monday, May 14, 2007

Grammar: Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them (Part 5 - Unnecessary commas with restrictive clauses)

The flip side of leaving out commas with unrestrictive clauses is putting in commas with restrictive clauses. This is troublesome, too. When you have a clause that restricts something in the sentence to a certain meaning, you don’t need a comma.

The document boxes were full of papers dating from before the project began.

For example, in this sentence, “dating from before the project began” is a restrictive clause. It restricts the papers to just papers that were dated before the project began. Therefore, it doesn’t need a comma. That comma is superfluous.

If you’re not sure whether or not the clause is restrictive, remove it from the sentence. If the meaning of the sentence changes significantly, then you’ve removed a restrictive clause. In the example, the clause defines the type of papers. If the clause was “which were yellowed with age,” that would be non-restrictive, because it doesn’t significantly change the meaning of the sentence.

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