Commas with Relative Pronouns

Learning Objective:

  • Identify and correctly punctuate relative pronouns.

Relative pronounsA word that replaces a noun that it relates to; it also introduces a relative clause. Examples: what, who, whom, whose, whoever, whomever, and which. introduce a special type of dependent clausePart of a sentence that contains a subject and a verb but is unable to stand on its own because it is incomplete in some way. Example of a dependent clause: Because it was a freshly picked apple, the boy ate it with delight. In this sentence, Because it was a freshly picked apple is a dependent clause. It has a subject (it) and a verb (was), but it cannot stand on its own without the second part of the sentence. called a relative clauseA type of dependent clause that begins with a relative pronoun. A relative clause modifies the words or phrases in the main clause. Example: This is the boy who always finishes his homework on time. The subject: the boy, is modified by the relative clause: who always finishes his homework on time.. They also indicate which part of the main sentenceA group of words, phrases, or clauses that expresses a complete thought. A complete sentence has these characteristics: a capitalized first word, a subject and a predicate, and end punctuation, such as a period (.), question mark (?), or exclamation mark (!). the relative clause modifiesTo change or specify the meaning of another word, usually the subject or the verb. Example: The red ball quickly bounced over the fence. The adjective red modifies the subject, the ball. Also, the adverb quickly modifies the verb bounced. or describes. Like all dependent clauses, a relative clause cannot stand alone as its own sentence because it does not express a complete thought.

All relative clauses consist of a relative pronoun (who/whom, whoever/whomever, whose, that, and which) and a verbA part of speech that refers to what is happening, the action, what the subject is doing, or how it is “being.” Examples include: sleep, to be, think.. For example, consider the sentence Jonah needed the backpack that was left on the desk. The relative pronoun is that. The relative clause is that was left on the desk. In the sentence, I work best with students who regularly attend class, the relative pronoun is who and the relative clause is who regularly attend class.

Some relative clauses require commas(,) A punctuation mark used to group and separate information in sentences., and some do not. To determine whether you need to use a comma or not, ask yourself if the relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence. If the clauseA group of words in a sentence that contains a subject and a predicate. is not essential to the meaning, then you will use commas to set it off. If it is essential, no commas are needed. A good rule to remember is relative clauses beginning with that are always essential and never require a comma; relative clauses beginning with which are almost always non-essential, so they typically require commas.

Let's look at an example:

The Spencer Inn and The Lane Homestead, which are outdated, will be torn down.

In this sentence, the relative clause which are outdated adds some additional information, but is not essential to the meaning. It is clear which buildings will be torn down without the relative clause. Therefore, commas are used to set the clause off.

Now consider this example:

All buildings that are outdated will be torn down.

In this sentence, the relative clause is essential. It tells us which buildings will be torn down. Without it, the meaning of the sentence is changed. Therefore, no commas are necessary.