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We got in through the window which someone had left open.

We got in through the window, which someone had left open.

I saw/hear these two sentences from an IELTS preparation video http://www.chinaielts.org/guide/band_descriptors_writing.shtml 2:37. These two sentences demonstrates the point that punctuation can change meaning supposedly . I think I know the meaning of the sentences but I could't tell the difference.

What do each of them imply?

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In the first sentence, the absence of a comma makes 'which someone had left open' a defining clause - there was more than one window, and only one was left open. In the second sentence, the comma has the effect of setting apart incidental or extra information that could be removed from the sentence without fundamentally changing its meaning. (These clauses are known as non-restrictive or non-defining). We do not know (or care) how many other windows there were, and whether they were left open or not. The one we got through was left open, and that's all we are saying.

Consider:

All players who are now back in town deny the charges.

All players, who are now back in town, deny the charges.

In the first example, there could be other players who are not back in town — there is no need for commas here. In the second example, all players deny the charges and, incidentally, they are all back in town. You need the commas in this sentence.

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  • While restrictive clauses can be distinguished by the lack of comma, it's best to use the word "that" to make it more clear. Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 19:45
  • @Acccumulation Both which and that are just as acceptable—it's a style choice. In North America, that is a little more common; while in the UK, which has a higher usage. Nobody will fail to understand either. The main point is to be consistent and to write to the specific preference of the particular audience (if they have one). For anybody learning to speak or write English, it's a lot more important to understand the use of the comma than the subtle difference between those two words. Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 1:48

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