Tag Archives: comma

Keep calm and comma on: Restrictive vs. nonrestrictive elements

by Marie Sherman

To use a comma or not to use a comma… that is the question! Well at least that’s something I often ask myself while writing. However, after reading more about commas on Writer’s Help, I have discovered some answers to share with any puzzled comma-users!

Commas are used in a variety of circumstances to break up different parts of a sentence and clarify its meaning. An important distinction to make when deciding whether or not to use a comma is in the case of word groups that describe nouns or pronouns. You must determine if the description of the noun or pronoun is necessary to the overall meaning of the sentence. If it is necessary, the description is referred to as a restrictive element. Otherwise it is an nonrestrictive element.


Because restrictive elements are the descriptions of a noun/pronouns that are essential to its meaning, they are used without commas.

Example 1: Writing tutors should ask students questions that allow them to think more deeply about the subject they are writing about.

In this sentence, the restrictive element is the description of the questions: “questions that allow [the students] to think more deeply about the subject they are writing about.” This description of the questions is essential to clarifying the meaning of the sentence, so commas are left out.

Example 2: J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is my favourite.

Since J.K. Rowling wrote more than one book, it is essential to clarify which book I’m talking about.

Nonrestrictive elements are the opposite because their description of nouns or pronouns is not necessary to convey the overall meaning of the sentence. Therefore, non-restrictive elements are used with commas.        

Example 1: The writing tutor helped a number of students from the same class, who all needed help on a paper. 

The students, who are described in this sentence, “all needed help on a paper.”  If you took out this description, the meaning of the sentence wouldn’t change because the tutor would still be doing the action of helping the students. The description merely provides some extra detail.

Example 2: The second Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, is my favourite.

In this sentence, I have already clarified which Harry Potter book I’m talking about. Giving the title is just providing additional information.


Overall: If you are confused about whether a description of a noun/pronoun in a sentence requires commas, you can easily figure it out! Try removing the description from the sentence. If this changes the meaning of the sentence, or makes it unclear, it is a restrictive element. Don’t add commas! However, if the description doesn’t change the essence of the sentence, it is a non-restrictive element, so add commas!


Marie Sherman is a sophmore at Principia College studying education and global studies. When not writing, she is probably running around campus or dancing!

Comma drama

by Carlie Sanderude

I’m sure I’m not the only one to know how easy it is to get tripped up over commas when writing. Sometimes I get “comma happy” and throw in commas after nearly every word. Other times I get “comma lazy” and don’t include enough commas at all. Commas really are not as complicated as we make them out to be if we follow a few simple guidelines. With a little help from my brother (who used to be a writing tutor before he graduated), let me offer the top five most common situations where you would need to use a comma in a sentence:

  1. Between items in a series. Note: the final comma is the somewhat famous Oxford comma that may be considered optional. Use it for clarity in most writing; do not use it in news writing and other mass communication courses.

Ex: Will you please give me a book, a pen, and a piece of paper?

  1. Between coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are those that could be connected with “and,” but instead you choose to use a comma.

Ex: The loud, angry man went storming out of the store.

  1. Before a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses. The coordinating conjunctions spell FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

Ex: I guess I didn’t need to buy the shoes, but I wanted to anyway.

  1. After an introductory phrase or clause. An introductory phrase or clause is a group of words that sets up a sentence, but is not the main subject of a sentence. It just provides added information.

Ex: When I went to France, I ate bread and cheese everyday.

  1. After introducing a quote. Place a comma after words such as “said” or “stated.” The quote must be a direct quote. If you use the word “that,” then the quote just becomes part of the sentence structure and no comma is needed.

Ex: Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”

Follow these rules when using commas, and life will become so much easier. If you want to know more situations where commas should be used, visit the tutors in the writing café in the library and ask for a comma handout! Commas can be daunting, but once you get the hang of it, they’re not difficult at all. But remember: just because you make a pause in a sentence doesn’t mean that you need to add a comma! That’s the big myth in this comma drama.

Carlie Sanderude is a senior at Principia College studying business administration and philosophy. She plays on the college’s soccer and tennis teams and has been a writing tutor for two years.