Tag Archives: punctuation

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!

Apostrophe catastrophe

by Shannon Naylor

One little mark has never been so intimidating. Whether it’s popping up in places it doesn’t belong or disappearing from where it’s needed, the apostrophe can be tricky to use properly. Let’s break it down.

The apostrophe signals one of two things:

  1. There are letters missing. (This is called a contraction.)
  2. The writer is indicating possession, ownership.


Ex. I’m (I am), you’re (you are), he’s (he is), let’s (let us)

Contractions are most commonly used in verbal speech, but can appear in writing for a couple of different reasons. When writing dialogue, authors will generally use contractions as people do when they speak out loud. In other professional (but not formal) writing, writers may use contractions to create a laid back, conversational tone. Contractions are generally not appropriate in formal academic writing, so it is a good idea to edit them out of your papers.


The apostrophe is also used to indicate possession. It answers the question “who owns what?” Let’s say you’re describing a dog owned by your cousin. You could say:

The dog owned by my cousin is adorable.

The dog of my cousin is adorable.

But these sentences are kind of ugly. Let’s use a possessive apostrophe (‘s, also called the genitive case) to make this cleaner.

My cousin’s dog is adorable.

To indicate an owner in the form of a singular noun, add ‘s to the end of the word. (This is what we saw above.)

The dog owned by my cousin becomes my cousin’s dog.

To indicate an owner in the form of a plural noun that ends in s, add just the apostrophe after the s.

The dog owned by my cousins becomes my cousins dog.

To indicate an owner in the form of a plural noun that doesn’t end in s, add ‘s.

The dog owned by the children becomes the children’s dog.

For help with some more complex possessive rules, check out Compound possession: Whose is what?

Shannon Naylor is the CTL post-graduate intern. In her free time, Shannon has been working on the fall musical, Guys and Dolls, as assistant director. 

Dash it all!

by Genevieve Bergeson

In my punctuation pocket, I found three things.

–    This
–   That
The other thing

Are they the same? Did something break when I sat down?


So what have we got here? Two notoriously neglected/abused kinds of punctuation: the hyphen and the dash. But which is which? How do they differ? Let’s get these straight.

Here’s the line-up:

The Hyphen ( – ), alias “Shorty”

1. Makes compound words. They also attach single letters to words to make other words.

Ex. Merry-go-round, mind-boggling, T-shirt, twenty-one

2. Connects words that are split across two lines.

Ex. See, it makes con-


3. Attaches prefixes and suffixes.

Ex. Pre-fall, post-war, cat-like, length-wise.  (In some cases, the dash is starting to fall out of style; for instance, either “length-wise” or “lengthwise” is acceptable.)

Usually, hyphens do not affect meaning, but that doesn’t mean they can’t. Observe:

  • Kim’s T shirt was all the rage at the preschool staff meeting. (The teachers agreed it would be fun for her to wear when she taught the kids the alphabet.)
  • Kim’s T-shirt was all the rage at the pre-school staff meeting.  (It reminded the teachers of their fantastic summer breaks—soon to be missed once fall term began.)


The Dash ( –, )

Although two hyphens (–) may represent a dash, hyphens and dashes have very different functions.

Em dashes (—) always mark a big pause. They emphasize information by distinctly setting it off. They can also separate appositives—phrases that rename the noun(s) they immediately follow, such as this definition—with internal punctuation. Formatting tip: Type two hyphens without spaces on both sides. They should automatically convert to —.

En dashes (–) express ranges in times or dates (and are interchangeable with “to”), e.g., 1775–1787. No drama involved. Formatting tip: Type two hyphens with spaces on both sides. They should automatically convert to –.

Hopefully today’s dash of punctuation demonstrates that details do make a difference.

Genevieve Bergeson, in her second year as a Principia post-graduate teaching intern in writing, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at drawstheeventide.com) and has several other stories in the works.