534 the absence of a comma with a non restrictive

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5.3.4 The absence of a comma with a non-restrictive element A non-restrictive element, also known as a non-de fi ning relative clause, is a piece of information that is added parenthetically; it could be omitted from the sentence and the sentence would still make sense. The non-restrictive element is most commonly indicated by its setting within two commas, but brackets or dashes can also be used. In the sentence ‘Shakespeare, who is considered by many to be the greatest ever playwright, was born in 1564’, the non-restrictive clause could be omitted for the sentence to remain grammatically correct and meaningful as ‘Shakespeare was born in 1564.’ The mistake that is commonly made is the omission of the second comma, for example: ‘Shakespeare, who is considered by many to be the greatest ever playwright was born in 1564.’ The example I have given is a straightforward one; in other more ambiguous cases, the use or lack of commas to indicate whether the element is non-restrictive or restrictive can signi fi cantly alter the sentence’s meaning. 5.3.5 Unnecessary comma(s) with a restrictive element A restrictive element, or de fi ning clause, as you might guess from the de fi ni- tion of its opposite above, is a piece of information that is crucial to the meaning of a sentence. The mistake of marking it out with commas would signal its status as additional rather than essential information, leading to con- fusion and inaccuracy. Consider the di ff erent meanings implied in the two ver- sions of this sentence: ‘The two students, who were found guilty of plagiarism, failed the course.’ / ‘The two students who were found guilty of plagiarism failed the course.’ In the fi rst version, the fact that the students were guilty of plagiarism is not signalled as the reason for their failure. This is presented as additional information and as such may be just a coincidence. In the second version, the plagiarism is presented as a restrictive element: it is crucial infor- mation and thus indicates that it is the reason why the students failed the Sentences 127
course. Both sentences are grammatically correct but the di ff erent deployment of commas presents di ff erent meanings. Using commas around what is a restrictive element will perplex your reader. In the sentence ‘In Song of Solomon , Morrison’s character, Guitar, is consumed with greed for gold’, the name of the protagonist has been placed within commas signalling that it is a non-restrictive element. This would be fi ne if there was only one character in Song of Solomon , but as there are several key fi gures the name of Guitar is crucial information and thus is a restrictive element that should not be contained within commas. 5.3.6 The absence of a comma in a series Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma and the Harvard comma, this is another issue about which there is, if not dispute, regional variation. In the US, it is the rule to place a comma before the last item in a list, as in: ‘Critics who have in

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