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In the passing away of Mr XYZ, we have lost a colossal sportsperson, who captured the nation’s imagination and...

Q: Do we need the comma after "sportsperson"? With the comma, does "who" refer to "colossal sportsperson in general"?

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    The presence or absence of a comma doesn't change the meaning. If the rest of the sentence is quite long, the comma provides a 'breathing space'. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 7:11
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    Your example contains what appears to be a defining relative clause, so no comma is required. Defining relatives are modifiers, while non-defining ones are supplements -- loosely attached non-modifying elements. Either way, "who" refers" to "colossal sportsperson"
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 7:29
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    @BillJ it can be interpreted in both ways. I mean it can be a defining or a non defining relative clause. And accordingly the comma. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 14:38
  • @Man_From_India I disagree. It's clearly a defining relative, modifying "colossal sportsperson". The information given in the relative clause is an integral part of the larger message: it plays an essential part in defining who is being said to capture the nation's imagination. Not all sportspeople capture the nation's imagination. A non-defining one would make little sense here.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 14:49
  • @BillJ I understand, still I think it is both ways. The mention of Mr. XYZ, already identifies the sportsperson. Yes I too agree with your point but I still can see point of it being interpreted as non defining. Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 14:52

2 Answers 2

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There are two issues here: one of form, and one of meaning. In terms of form, as @BillJ points out, the relative clause may be integrated within or supplementary to the noun phrase it is elaborating on. In edited writing, a supplementary relative clause would normally follow a comma. An integrated relative would not if it and the phrase it is modifying are short:

  • Yesterday I met an actor, who loves to ski, and a musician. [supplementary—comma is normal]
  • I know Mr. XYZ is an actor, who loves to ski, and a musician. [integrated—first comma is odd]

In terms of the meaning, supplementary relative clauses are non-defining (or nonrestrictive). Integrated relative clauses, however, may be defining or non-defining.1 The sentence

  • Mr. XYZ is an actor who loves to ski.

could be interpreted as enumerating facts about an individual: he is an actor, and he likes to ski. That is the non-defining interpretation. Or, it could be talking about different kinds of actors, and saying that Mr. XYZ is the kind of actor who likes to ski: that is the defining interpretation.

Regarding the sentence in the question: I would favor the non-defining interpretation because it sounds like the goal is to list facts about the individual in question, not to clarify which kind of sportsperson the speaker is talking about. I think the comma is certainly acceptable, but it may not be necessary.

1 A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, 2nd edition, p. 284

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...we have lost a colossal sportsperson, who captured the nation’s imagination and...

... and had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians.

My take on it is that in the context of the quote, the absence of a comma would show that the "who captured the nation's imagination and..." part, to the person being quoted, is the essential bit of information about the deceased.

At the same time, since the phrase following "who" is quite long, the comma would provide the "breathing space" @Katy Bunting has mentioned.

Besides, either with or without the comma, there wouldn't appear any ambiguity reading and understanding the whole sentence.

With the comma, does "who" refer to "colossal sportsperson in general"?

Paraphrased as "What is the "who" referred to--the person's name or his occupation?", the question could be answered: "Depending on whether you decided to put or not to put the comma. With the comma, it would be the person's name, and without it--his occupation."

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  • @BillJ - I'm not into gainsaying you, being an ESL learner. Yet, with all due respect, I still can't see what essential to the fact of the death of the said great sportsperson is the information about him having captured the nation's imagination, having had a special place in the hearts of countless Indians, and so on-- the list of what else he was known, famous, and will be remembered for may be continued. Best always:)
    – Victor B.
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 12:59

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