JS Tip 476: Restrictive and Non-restrictive Phrases. Wow. Deep stuff. 

From the Writing Workshops: “Restrictive” and “Non-restrictive” Phrases. Wow. Deep stuff.

This may be a tough one. Your head may hurt.

Consider these two sentences:

     A.     My uncle the butcher loves to fish. 
     B.     My uncle, the butcher, loves to fish. 

Does the meaning change? If so, how? (The commas are the clue.)   

Bear with us. 

Restrictive Phrases. The writer of sentence “A” has more than one uncle. In fact, she has three uncles: a butcher, a baker, and a dentist.   

She must specify which of her three uncles loves to fish, so it’s need-to-know information, and she uses no commas. It’s a restrictive phrase. It’s important to the meaning of the sentence because it restricts (identifies, sets apart, fences off) the specific uncle (the butcher) who loves to fish. 

Non-restrictive Phrases. The writer of sentence “B” has only one uncle. That he’s a butcher is nice-to-know information. (Maybe you wonder if he sells the fish he catches.)  

It’s a non-restrictive phrase. That he’s a butcher doesn’t matter. In fact, if the writer wanted to, she could leave out the non-restrictive phase: “My uncle loves to fish” and there’d be no confusion, because she only has one uncle. Uncle Butch.   

How’s that? What are your questions? 

We love this stuff.

Mark Brooks