What Are Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses? Definitions and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on August 17, 2023

Do you want to learn more about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses? Then you've come to the right place. This article will teach you what you need to know about them in order to use them correctly in your writing.

In short:

  • A restrictive clause is a clause that's essential to the meaning of the sentence.
  • A nonrestrictive clause can easily be removed without affecting the meaning. 

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Clauses, and What Does Restrictive or Nonrestrictive Mean?

Before we get started, let's talk about the meaning of the word 'clause.' What exactly are clauses? Well, quite simply, a clause is a group of words containing a subject and predicate.

Here's an example of a clause:

I've never been here before.

The subject is 'I,' and the predicate is 'been here before' (it's the verb and any other word that relates to the verb). It's easy to tell a clause apart from a phrase because a phrase doesn't have a subject, a verb, or both, so they don't convey a complete thought.

Here's an example of a phrase:

the best thing ever. 

Though clauses always convey a complete thought, sometimes they can stand alone (independent clauses), and other times they can't (dependent clauses). To learn more about clauses check out this article.

What we're here to learn about today is the two kinds of clauses: restrictive and nonrestrictive. So here goes.

What Are Restrictive Clauses?

Both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses provide information about the sentence's subject. The difference between the two is that restrictive clauses offer information that's important to the sentence's meaning.

That's why restrictive clauses are also often called essential clauses, which I think is a great way to remember what they actually are: essential. This means that if you removed these clauses from the sentence, you would lose some vital information.

Let's take a look at an example:

The book that you have in your hands is very interesting. 

Here, the clause 'that you have in your hands' is restrictive because it provides an essential piece of information. It tells us that it's a specific book that's very interesting. It's not just any book; it's the one you have in your hands. If we removed that clause, we'd get the following:

The book is very interesting. 

Not the same thing at all, is it? And while this sentence is perfectly satisfactory, grammatically. It just doesn't convey the same meaning.

Another great way to remember what restrictive clauses do is to think of the meaning of the word 'restrictive.' Because what do restrictive clauses do? By definition, they restrict. They take something general, and they narrow it down. They limit. They help a sentence specify what they are referring to.

Here are some more examples with the restrictive clause underlined:

The person who was sitting next to me wouldn't stop snoring. 

Children whose homework isn't completed should head to detention.

The job that I just applied for is based in New York.

Please can the people whose name I call out come and stand to my left.

Airplanes that were used in the war can be found in the local museum.

You might notice that restrictive clauses often start with relative pronouns like 'who,' 'that,' or 'whose.' But as we'll see later, nonrestrictive clauses can also begin with relative pronouns. Other times, the relative pronouns might be implied but not explicitly stated.

Here are some examples where I've inserted the relative pronoun in brackets where it could be:

The house (that) I'm thinking of buying is in the city center.

The person (who) this car belongs to is a VIP.

Let me tell you about all the places (that) you must visit in New York. 

The teachers (who are) helping with the annual bakesale get an extra day off. 

The mentor (whom) inspired me the most got a special mention in my book.

What Are Nonrestrictive Clauses?

Now we've covered what restrictive clauses are; we can move on to nonrestrictive clauses. What do you think they are? You'd be right if you guessed that nonrestrictive clauses were the opposite of restrictive clauses.

Nonrestrictive clauses—also known as non-essential clauses—provide information that isn't crucial to the sentence's meaning. The info a nonrestrictive sentence provides is good to have, as it gives us additional details, but it wouldn't alter the sentence's meaning if it were removed.

Here's an example:

Red, my favorite color, is the color of passion. 

It isn't massively important for the reader to know that red is the reader's favorite color; it's just an added bonus. The most important message this sentence is trying to convey is that red is the color of passion. That's why removing that information about it being the writer's favorite color wouldn't detract from the meaning. And that's why it's a nonrestrictive clause.

Red is the color of passion. 

As you can see, after removing the nonrestrictive clause, the sentence is still grammatically correct and tells us what we need to know. Let's take a look at some more examples with the nonrestrictive clause underlined:

The man, whom I'd never seen before, was said to be very kind.

Sharks, which many people are afraid of, get a bad rap.

The vet, who was a patient and loving woman, gave me some great advice.

My new company, which I'll be launching later this year, will be a huge success.

That candle, which was gifted to me by my mom, reminds me of my childhood.

As you may have noticed, and as I mentioned earlier, relative pronouns often introduce nonrestrictive clauses. But this isn't always the case, and furthermore, sometimes, the pronoun will be implied. Let's have a look at some more examples where the relative pronoun, if relevant, is added in brackets where it should be:

My daughter, (who was) born in the state of Arizona, recently moved to the Big Apple for a new job.

His laptop, (which is) over ten years old, is falling apart.

The village's doctor, (who was) a man who enjoyed his comforts, passed away last year. 

You may also notice that nonrestrictive clauses are set off by commas. Basically, the bit in between the commas is the bit that can be removed.

Let's try it with some of our previous examples:

His laptop is falling apart.

The village's doctor passed away last year. 

As you can see, these sentences are still correct, make sense, and retain the primary meaning. That's the true telltale that the clauses we removed were nonrestrictive.

You can also offset nonrestrictive clauses with other punctuation if you wish. Some other appropriate types of punctuation are em dashes and parentheses.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. I hope you found it helpful.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • A clause contains a subject and a predicate.
  • Restrictive clauses provide essential information and cannot be removed from the sentence.
  • Nonrestrictive clauses can be removed without affecting the sentence's meaning.
  • Both types of clauses provide information about the sentence's subject.
  • Nonrestrictive clauses should be offset from the rest of the sentence by commas or other appropriate punctuation. 

If you enjoyed this article, then you might like our Grammar Book, a free online database of grammar articles just like this one. Check it out!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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