Restrictive or nonrestrictive: 2 tests

QUESTION:
Do either of the two sentences below need commas to set off the underlined adjective clause?

SENTENCES:
George Washington who was our first president was inaugurated on April 30, 1789.
George Washington is the president who is on the dollar bill.

Test #1: The pause test

Read each sentence out loud, pausing before and after the adjective clause. How does it sound?

George Washington [PAUSE] who was our first president [PAUSE] was inaugurated on April 30, 1789.

George Washington is the president [PAUSE] who is on the dollar bill.

If the pause sounds natural, use commas. If the pause sounds “funny,” don’t use commas.

George Washington, who was our first president, was inaugurated on April 30, 1789. [COMMAS]
George Washington is the president who is on the dollar bill. [NO COMMAS]

In theory, the Pause Test ought to work because nonrestrictive adjective clauses are essentially parenthetical. Pauses before and after parenthetical phrases are always acceptable (and often preferable).

However, I have no idea how well this test works in reality. I’m curious.

Test #2: The ‘more-than-one’ test

  1. Find the noun being modified by the adjective clause.
  2. If the noun refers to only 1 possible person, place, thing, etc., use commas before & after the adjective clause.
  3. If the noun could refer to more than 1 possible person, place, thing, etc., and you need the adjective clause to tell you which person(s), place(s), thing(s), etc. the noun refers to, do not use commas.

George Washington [NOUN BEING MODIFIED] who was our first president [ADJECTIVE CLAUSE] was inaugurated on April 30, 1789.

There is only one George Washington.* We don’t need the adjective clause “who was our first president” to identify which George Washington the sentence is talking about, so we use commas:

George Washington, who was our first president, was inaugurated on April 30, 1789.

The 2nd sentence is tricky:

George Washington is the president [NOUN BEING MODIFIED] who is on the dollar bill. [ADJECTIVE CLAUSE]

To know how to punctuate this sentence, it’s important to see that “who is on the dollar bill” modifies “president,” not “George Washington.”

The word “president” is general. Any one president says and does and knows and is many things. Here’s what I mean:

George Washington is…
…the president who is on the dollar bill
…the president who lived in Mount Vernon
…the president who established Thanksgiving as a national holiday
…the president who signed the Jay Treaty

We could go on writing this list of forever, so we need the adjective clause to identify which aspect of George Washington’s presidency the sentence is talking about. “Who is on the dollar bill” is a restrictive clause and we don’t use commas:

George Washington is the president who is on the dollar bill.

Now let’s take out “is the president” and see what happens:

George Washington who is on the dollar bill was our first president.

Do we need commas before and after “who is on the dollar bill”?

If you’re not sure, take “who is on the dollar bill” out of the sentence, and see what happens:

George Washington was our first president.

Question: When we remove the adjective clause, do we still know which George Washington we’re talking about?

Answer: Yes. We don’t need the adjective clause “who is on the dollar bill” to tell us which George Washington the sentence is about — so we set the adjective clause off with commas:

George Washington, who is on the dollar bill, was our first president.
George Washington was our first president.

With or without the adjective clause, we know who the sentence is talking about.

In sum: if the noun could be more than one possible entity (thing), the adjective clause is restrictive and we do not use commas.

Trying the tests myself…

This page, at the Grammar Shed, has terrific examples and a helpful explanation of why the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive modifiers can be so confusing.

I’ve just used both tests on one of their sentences (which has 2 relative clauses in a row):

I had the pleasure of “hand-talking” to a lemur which had just returned from Madagascar where it had lived for ten years.

For me, the pause test didn’t work especially well, but the more-than-one test worked just fine.

ANSWER AND EXPLANATION

* Yes, I know there is very likely more than one George Washington in the world. However, in the context of this particular sentence, “George Washington” refers to presidents of the United States, and there is only one George Washington in that category. Ultimately, context determines whether an adjective clause is or is not necessary to identify which person(s), place(s), thing(s), etc. the sentence is talking about. That’s what makes this concept hard to teach and hard to understand.

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