Sneaky commas and “that” or “which”?

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Hmmmmmmm……which one, “that” or “which”? Many thanks to Andrew for suggesting this one.

A warning first: We are getting into serious language nerd territory. It’s the kind of thing that native speakers get wrong all the time! *Cough*

It’s all about two types of relative clause. A relative clause is part of a sentence starting with “that, which, who, whose, whom, where or when”, for example: “The man who sold the world.” Here the word “who” links the two sentences, “The man” and “He sold the world”.

The first type of relative clause answers the question “which one?”, or “what kind of …?” This is called an identifying clause.

For example in the phrase, “The Hotel that you recommended”. The relative clause “that you recommended” answers the question “which hotel are you taking about?” and therefore identifies the hotel.

In the phrase, “My sister who lives in Canada” the relative clause “who lives in Canada” answers the question “Which sister?” and therefore identifies the sister. -It’s not the sister who lives in London.

The second, non-identifying clause, gives extra information. You don’t need to know this information to know “which one?” or “who?”, it just helps to build a better picture.

For example, in the phrase, “The Hotel Dolder, which cost us an arm and a leg …” you already know which hotel it is, it’s the Dolder in Zurich. Type that into google maps and you’ll find it no problem. The relative clause “which cost us an arm and a leg” just adds the extra information that you had to sell a kidney to stay there.

NOTICE THAT IN THE IDENTIFYING CLAUSE I USED “THAT” (The Hotel that you recommended) AND IN THE NON-IDENTIFYING CLAUSE I USED “WHICH”! (The Hotel Dolder, which cost us an arm and a leg) -Pardon me for shouting. This is the way things are done in English 99% of the time. (Not the shouting, the grammar bit!)

For the next part you really need to put your reading glasses on (40+ joke). In the phrase “My sister, who lives in Canada” The relative clause “who lives in Canada” is a non-identifying clause not an identifying clause.

Yes, Yes I know!! But have another look. There’s a comma! The comma is powerful, it is the Jedi Master of punctuation marks. It can change the whole meaning of the sentence.

In the phrase “My sister, who lives in Canada” The comma separates out the two parts of the phrase, “My sister” and “who lives in Canada” because they are two separate elements. “My sister” identifies who you are talking about, and “who lives in Canada” is extra information. You do not need more information to identify her, because who she is is obvious to the listener. Either she is the speaker’s only sister, or the speaker had already been talking about her. (Or it’s the sister no one talks about…)

In the phrase “My sister who lives in Canada”, “My sister” and “who lives in Canada” are not separated with a comma because they belong together. Both parts of the phrase identify who you are talking about. It’s the sister who lives in Canada, not the sister who lives in Mongolia! Because you need “who lives in Canada” to identify which sister it is, this means the speaker has more than one sister, and the listener needs more information to identify her.

Wrong placement of commas before relative clauses can be amusing for language nerds:

A:”My boyfriend who owns a Mercedes is coming to the party” B:”Come on! Can’t you get the one with the Lambourgini!”

Anyway, see you next week! Don’t forget to leave a comment or a like!

Take care!

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