The University of St Andrews ______ is the oldest university in Scotland.

A. which was founded in 1413

B. , which was founded in 1413,

C. , that was founded in 1413,

The answer is 'B'.

I wonder why 'A' is wrong?

  • 6
    If you choose A, the clause will become a restrictive relative clause, and your sentence seems to sound better with a non-restrictive one. – Damkerng T. Oct 16 '14 at 17:54
  • 3
    A implies that there are multiple Universities of St. Andrews, and you are specifying which one (the one which was founded in 1413, as opposed to some other one). Since there is presumably only the one University, the non-restrictive B is more correct. – Roger Oct 16 '14 at 18:37
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    @TRomano: um, including or omitting the comma totally changes the meaning of the sentence. How is that "nothing to do with the language"? – Martha Oct 16 '14 at 20:40
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    While not necessarily an answer to the grammatical problem at hand, in common usage I would just use "The University of St. Andrews, founded in 1413, is the oldest university in Scotland." – corsiKa Oct 16 '14 at 22:32
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    In today's standard English, both #A and #B would be acceptable. BUT, if you are a student or an employee, then you'll have to give the teacher the answer they want or your employer what they want. The choice of using a pair of commas or not, that usually depends on the writer and what they want to convey: if the writer wants that info (the relative clause) to be integrated into the main clause, then no commas; else if the writer wants that info to be considered to be supplementary, then the pair of commas. – F.E. Oct 18 '14 at 2:50

Without the commas, the "which" becomes a restrictive clause: it's there to tell you which University of St. Andrews the sentence is talking about, i.e. it's implying that there is more than one such university. Since that's presumably not true (there's only one University of St. Andrews), you have to put in the commas to make the "which" part into a simple non-restrictive subordinate clause, i.e. one that's giving information that is parenthetical to the main sentence - the sentence could exist perfectly happily without it.

('C' is incorrect because "that" doesn't like to be subordinate like that. You can sometimes get away with it in colloquial, informal speech, but most teachers would frown on it.)

  • 1
    @Martha I think you are confusing "subordinate" with "non-restrictive"; both restrictive and non-restrictive relatives are subordinate. – StoneyB Oct 16 '14 at 21:16
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    @TRomano I cannot agree. Although it is true that both sorts of relative clause are subordinate, the absence of commas does mark a relative clause as restrictive (as does the use of that), and the presence of comma-bracketing does mark the clause as non-restrictive. This is not merely a typographic convention: the commas reflect "comma intonation" in speech. – StoneyB Oct 16 '14 at 21:19
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    @TRomano Indeed; that is doubly marked as restrictive. The University of St. Andrews which was founded in 1413 is singly marked as restrictive. The University of St. Andrews, which was founded in 1413 is singly marked as non-restrictive. The University of St. Andrews, that was founded in 1413 is contradictorily marked as both restrictive (by that) and non-restrictive (by the comma). – StoneyB Oct 16 '14 at 21:23
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    @StoneyB: "simple subordinate clause" was my attempt to describe a subordinate clause that is not restrictive (as opposed to a subordinate clause that is restrictive), but I can see how it was, uh, less than clear. Edited. – Martha Oct 16 '14 at 21:31
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    @TRomano Please feel free to ask a separate question about intonation if the quote from ASItEG was not enough to make it clear (which is surprising, since I assumed you were a native speaker―this is rather basic and uncontroversial stuff). We should try to avoid extended discussion on Martha's answer here. By the way, none of this has anything to do with prescriptivism. – snailcar Oct 18 '14 at 14:50

I think many non-native speakers don't know the definition of the relative defining and non-defining clauses. So I have tried to explain these clauses in simple words along with my reply although a satisfactory answer has already been given by Martha.

The university of St Andrew is the oldest university in Scotland.

This sentence is a complete sentence on its own. Anybody can understand its full sense; we don't need any information essential to know which university is being talked about. It's already mentioned in this sentence. If any information is given after the name of the university St Andrew, it'll be an additional information. For this additional information consisting of which + a verb we need to put a comma before and after this information. This clause giving the additional information is called the non-defining relative clause.

In light of this explanation, the first option is wrong as there are no commas before and after the additional information "which was founded in 1413".

As for the second option ", which was founded in 1413, "is correct because it fits in the explanation given in the first paragraph. It has all the characteristics of the non-defining relative clause i.e. additional information, along with use of "which" at the beginning of this clause and commas before and after this clause.

Regarding the third option, it's also wrong. Two commas are there but "that" has been used instead of "which" used in the non-defining relative clause.

Now look at the following sentence:

The university is the oldest university in Scotland.

This sentence is also complete but if the listener/reader doesn't know which university is being talked about, this sentence does not give the full sense required unless some information essential to understand the full sense of the sentence is provided. The defining relative clause contains this essential information for which we don't use commas before and after it and we use "that" at the beginning of it for things and persons. We can also use "who" for persons and "which" for things. This clause giving essential information is called the defining relative clause. We can put the above sentence with the relative defining clause as follows:

The university that/which is called the university of St Andrew is the oldest university in Scotland. "That is called the university of St Andrew" is the defining relative clause".

  • F.E. I am sorry. It's non-defining relative clause. Thanks. – Khan Oct 18 '14 at 14:37

To make clear that the university was founded in 1413, you can move the clause to the front of the sentence.

It probably should be:

Founded in 1413, The University of St Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland.

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