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7. Abused Relatives

That, which, and who are often used as relative pronouns to introduce clauses that modify the nouns they follow. They are three of the most useful, and used, words in the language. Being so useful, they often are misused or overused.

Two definitions are in order. A restrictive clause, which is also called a defining or limiting clause, defines a noun. A nonrestrictive clause, also called an informing or commenting clause, adds information about a noun that has already been defined or does not need definition. Here are some examples.

Restrictive Clauses
Nonrestrictive Clauses
The book that (or which) I wrote in 1994 is about French politics. My book on French politics, which I wrote in 1994, is about to be published.
The people who live next door are going to Hollywood. The Moores, who live next door, are going to Hollywood.

A few comments should help clarify the differences between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses even more. First, a restrictive clause can be introduced by that, which, or who; a nonrestrictive clause by which or who. Second, in the foregoing examples of restrictive clauses, the reader does not know which book or which people are being written about until the clause appears. The restrictive clause is needed to define the book to distinguish it from other books and to define the people to distinguish them from other people. Third, in the examples of nonrestrictive clauses, the reader already knows which book and which Moores are being written about when the clause appears. Note that nonrestrictive clauses can be cut without sacrificing the clarity of sentences and that restrictive clauses cannot.

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