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Sometimes I get confused with relative clauses.

1-The wedding, which only members of the family were invited to, took place on Friday.

I think in this sentence the relative clause should be defining and the commas should be removed. Why did we use non-defining relative clause ?

  • Well, what's the usual rule regarding the use of "defining" and "non-defining" relatives? What meaning does this sentence express, and what meaning do you think it should express? – userr2684291 Sep 15 '18 at 15:47
  • With commas as per your example, it's a non-defining relative clause (there's only one contextually-relevant wedding, for which the comma-delineated clause provides additional information). Without those commas, it's a defining clause (there are multiple contextually-relevant weddings, from which writer is specifically singling out the "family only" one). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 15 '18 at 16:07
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Sometimes, it is obvious from looking at a sentence, even if it has not been punctuated, if a relative clause is defining or non-defining.

My grandmother's house which she has lived in for 30 years is the one with the red door.

The essential information in this sentence is, 'My grandmother's house is the one with the red door'. In this sentence 'which she has lived in for 30 years' could be left out without affecting our understanding of the sentence. It is clearly not an essential piece of information, so it is a non-defining clause. This sentence should be punctuated as:

My grandmother's house, which she has lived in for 30 years, is the one with the red door.

.

The book which I am currently reading is very interesting.

In this case the whole sentence is essential. If the relative clause 'which I am currently reading' is left out, we are left with 'The book is very interesting', but we have no idea which book the writer is referring to. So, the relative clause is a defining clause, as it tells us which book 'is very interesting'. In this case the above sentence has already been correctly punctuated, and no changes are required.

On the other hand, sometimes, if a sentence has not been punctuated, we cannot tell if a relative clause is a defining clause or a non-defining clause. Your sentence would be a case in point. The sentence can be punctuated as:

The wedding, which only members of the family were invited to, took place on Friday.

This sentence tells us, (1)the wedding was held on Friday and (2)it just so happens that only family members were invited to it. In this case the clause,'which only members of the family were invited to', is a non-defining clause. It is quite possible that other weddings were also held on Friday to which only family members were invited.

The wedding which/that only members of the family were invited to took place on Friday.

This sentence tells us, (1)there was one or possibly more weddings held on Friday, but (2)the wedding we are interested in was the one to which only family members were invited. In this case the clause,'which only members of the family were invited to', is a defining clause. It clearly defines this wedding as distinct from any other wedding that possibly occurred on the same day.

In other words, the person who writes the sentence needs to determine which message they want to communicate to the reader. Having done that the writer then knows whether they need to use a defining or a non-defining clause to ensure that the reader knows what the writer intended to communicate. Once the writer knows what sort of relative clause they are writing, they can apply the appropriate rules of punctuation to tell the reader how to interpret the sentence correctly.

  • I suspect that your example is misleading. If your grandmother had lived in the house with the red door for 30 years and the next door house with a blue door for 10, the red door would indeed define which house was concerned - assuming no commas.. – Ronald Sole Sep 15 '18 at 23:26
  • @Ronald Sole I am not sure what you mean. I said, "The essential information in this sentence is, 'My grandmother's house is the one with the red door'. " So I agree that the red door defines which house I am directing someone to. But it does so whether or not she had previously lived in the house next door with a blue door. The original sentence is directing someone to my grandmother's house and merely mentions in passing that she has lived there for 30 years. I could have written the sentence in the manner you suggested, but that would not illustrate the concept of a non-defining clause. – James Sep 16 '18 at 12:26
  • I'm thinking again. Bear with me. – Ronald Sole Sep 16 '18 at 14:31
  • Let's imagine that grandmother has lived in two houses, one with a red door for 30 years and one with a blue door for ten. If someone asks which house is which, does the 30 years clause not define it as the one with the red door? – Ronald Sole Sep 16 '18 at 14:39
  • Yes. But how does that meet the requirement that the clause should also be an example of a non-defining clause. If you combine the red door and the 30 year residency descriptions in the same clause, that clause would become a defining clause. – James Sep 16 '18 at 15:46
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In this example it is clearly a "non-defining" clause. We are giving addition information about the wedding. The clause does not identify a particular wedding out of many under consideration.

This is non-defining because it could be rephrased

The wedding took place on Friday, and only family members were invited.

On the other hand, if several weddings are considered:

The church hosted 5 weddings that day. Four of the weddings were lavish events with hundreds of guests. But the wedding that only family were invited to was special, because the couple were both over 90 years old.

Here I've used a defining clause. There are 5 weddings considered, but I've identified one as "the wedding that only family were invited to". I could not rephrase this with "and".

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