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If I don’t use a comma before the word who in this sentence below, then would it imply that I have more than one sister (supposing the speaker had only one sister)?

I received a gift from my sister who just got back from Japan.

If it does, do I have to put a comma before the word who in this case?

  • 16
    As a native English speaker, I had to think for a minute to realize how that sentence would imply you had more than one sister. – scatter Jun 12 at 18:49
  • 3
    Comma or no comma, I'd prefer "who had just got back from Japan". – Rosie F Jun 13 at 6:56
  • One of my English teachers would have instructed you to just rewrite the sentence to clarify your intent/meaning. For example, "My sister gave me a gift from her recent trip to Japan." – Steve Withington Jun 13 at 16:33
23

This is a very good question.

Let me start by saying there are 2 kinds of relative clauses: defining and non-defining.

If you put a comma before "who," it will mean that you are giving extra information about your sister. In this case the relative clause (who (had) just got back from Japan) doesn't define or classify the noun (sister), the main clause still makes sense without it (I received a gift from my sister - and everyone understands who exactly, perhaps, because you have one sister).

If you decide not to put a comma before "who," it means there is a need to define the sister - which sister exactly gave me the gift? (it may be important if you have more than one sister)

Thus, a defining relative clause identifies or classifies a noun/pronoun in the main clause. It gives information which is necessary for the sense of the sentence.

Here are a few more examples:

The members of the team, who had sponsors, flew to the championships in Ottawa. (All the members of the team flew to Ottawa.)

The students who passed the test received a prize. (Some of the students didn't receive a prize.)

Source: "MyGrammarLab Advanced" by M.Foley and D.Hall

For more information on relative clauses, check out this blog.

  • 2
    And, this is a very good answer as you explain that's up to the writer (certainly a careful writer) whether to put a comma. – Lucian Sava Jun 12 at 11:11
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    Note that the reason there's no need to define which sister could also be that you don't think it matters to the audience. They don't know your family, so the distinction is irrelevant. – Barmar Jun 12 at 23:22
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    I think it is probably worth mentioning, since this is ELL, that English authors are unlikely to be totally scrupulous about the use of this comma. It may well be present for non-defining cases and absent for defining cases, just because that matched the presence/absence of a pause in the author’s mind. As always, “rules” of the English language are an attempt to categorize how people speak and write, but speakers and writers tend to just go with what sounds right to them. Wouldn’t want someone reading this to be confused as assume something must be defining because there is no comma. – KRyan Jun 13 at 1:42
3

Not using a comma doesn't imply that you have more than one sister any more than the following sentence does:

I received a gift from my sister.

It's still possible that you have more than one sister. Although you could clarify the situation, in most cases it's not worth the extra effort:

I received a gift from my only sister.

I received a gift from one of my sisters.

If you did use either of those sentences with "who just got back from Japan", then you'd have to use a comma:

I received a gift from my only sister, who just got back from Japan.

I received a gift from one of my sisters, who just got back from Japan.

Otherwise the first sentence would mean that you have several sisters, only one of whom just got back from Japan:

I received a gift from my only sister who just got back from Japan. (my other sisters haven't just got from Japan)

The second sentence would mean that you have several sisters who just got back from Japan:

I received a gift from one of my sisters who just got back from Japan. (more than one of my sisters just returned from Japan, but only only one of them gave me a gift)

Note that in speech the comma indicates a small pause, so there is an audible difference too.

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