Grammar & Punctuation: Essential and Nonessential Rules

Posted December 22, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Grammar Explanations, Properly Punctuated, Self-Editing, Writing

One of the Basic Rules

There are some basic rules in English, and the essential / nonessential rule is critical every time a comma is involved.

Commas separate clauses or phrases that are nonessential to the meaning of a sentence. Of course this rule isn’t hard and fast but can also depend upon the type of clause or phrase and where it is located within the sentence and/or the context. Yes, this is not a clause or a phrase. It’s a rule that applies to clauses or phrases.

An Example of Context

Lebanon R3 Schools provides an excellent example of context with the following sentence: “That man at the football game wearing clown shoes and makeup is my weird uncle.” Or you could say “the clown at the football game is my weird uncle”.

The article notes that the setting is a football game, and it’s reasonable to assume there will be many men at the game. Therefore it is essential that a distinction be made to point out any one particular man. Of course, if we were at a clown convention, it would be essential to note “that clown at the clown convention wearing the red-and-black polka-dotted dress“.

For More Info

For the basics, read “Clauses versus Phrases” with more information about particular clauses in other posts including the dependent clause, the relative clause, the participial phrase, the appositive phrase, and more.

NOTE: One of the irritating aspects of English is how many ways grammarians refer to the same damned term. In this case, essential and nonessential may also be known as defining or nondefining, restrictive or nonrestrictive.

Essential Examples Nonessential Examples
Credit to: Jane Straus
I will give the document to my brother Tom.

The writer has more than one brother. In this case, the specific brother — Tom — is essential information and should not be set off with a comma.

I will give the document to my brother, Tom.

The writer has only one brother. The brother’s name is nonessential and therefore set off with a comma.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter has been made into several movies.

Hawthorne wrote more than one novel.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel, Fanshawe, was published anonymously in 1828.

Hawthorne had only one first novel.

The guy seated next to me wouldn’t stop talking.

Without seated next to me we would have no idea which guy.

Ezra Blung, the guy seated next to me, wouldn’t stop talking.

We know who it is, so now the guy seated next to me becomes nonessential.

Grammar Explanations and the Properly Punctuated sometimes…

…cross as it does here in this post on “xx”. Being Properly Punctuated — the proper use of quotation marks, commas, semicolons, colons, ellipsis, etc., including how to properly mark dialog, and more — can be affected by the grammatical rules and principles on structure that determine where and how words are placed in phrases or sentences.

Sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if you have an idea or suggestion that makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…as well as questions on issues with which you are frustrated. If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page and consider sharing this combination Grammar Explanation and Properly Punctuated post with friends by tweeting it.

Essential / Restrictive / Defining
Rule: Indicates that the phrase/clause is important to the meaning of the sentence. It will not be understandable without this clarification and commas should not be used.
Essential THAT Nonessential WHICH
Rule: That is serving as a restrictive pronoun and does not take a comma. Rule: Which — when it’s a nonrestrictive pronoun — requires a comma.
John’s cars that are leased are never kept clean.

In this case, the dirty cars are specifically those that John leased; John might have non-leased cars that are kept clean.

John’s cars, which are leased, are never kept clean.

In this case, all of John’s cars are dirty. The fact that those cars are leased is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Legend:

  1. Yellow indicates the essential
  2. Green indicates the nonessential
Adverbial Afterthoughts Definition: Uses an adverb to tack on additional information that includes specific details.

Rule: When a sentence ends with an adverb that is essential to the meaning of the sentence, the adverb should not be set off with a comma.

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NOTE: It may however not be essential to the meaning of the sentence, see Nonessential Afterthoughts.
Examples
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the adverb

We visited Berlin too.

We took the train instead.

Nonessential / Nonrestrictive / Non-defining
Credit to: The Punctuation Guide
Rule: Indicates that the phrase/clause is not important to the meaning of the sentence. If it were removed, the sentence would still make sense.
Adjectives Modifying a Noun
Multiple Adjectives Rule: When you have two or more adjectives — and each independently modifies the noun — you must use a comma. The section on Coordinate Adjectives discusses an easy test on switching adjectives using the conjunction and.

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Examples
Rebecca’s new dog has long, silky hair.

Rebecca’s new dog has long and silky hair.


Rebecca’s new dog has silky, long hair.

Rebecca’s new dog has silky and long hair.

The loud, angry protesters mobbed the building.

The loud and angry protesters mobbed the building.


The angry, loud protesters mobbed the building.

The angry and loud protesters mobbed the building.

3+ Modifying Adjectives Rule: When there are three or more modifying adjectives, it is perfectly acceptable to treat them as a conventional list and include the conjunction and.

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Examples
It was a long, noisy, nauseating flight.

It was a long and noisy and nauseating flight.

It was a long, noisy, and nauseating flight.

Sequential Adjectives Do NOT Modify Rule: If sequential adjectives do not individually modify a noun, they should not be separated by a comma.

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Examples
He held a bright, red balloon.

He held a bright and red balloon

He held a red bright balloon.

Repeat Adjective for Emphasis Rule: When an adjective is repeated for emphasis, a comma (or commas) are required.

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Examples
This is a very, very violent movie.

It’ll be a cold, cold day in hell before I say yes to you!

In a galaxy far, far away…

That is one bad, bad boy, mm-hmmm.

Appositive Explanation Rule: When an appositive is used to explain or define, set it off with commas.

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Examples
Mary Smith, a staff writer at Big City Times, recently wrote a book on that subject.

The building’s window placement, referred to by architects as fenestration, is among its most distinctive features.

Legend:

  1. Green indicates the nonessential explanation
Nonessential Word or Phrase Interrupts Rule: When a nonessential word or phrase interrupts in the middle of a sentence, it should be set off with commas.

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Examples
Your work has been, frankly, awful.

The hotel, once we finally found it, was very nice.

Legend:

  1. Green indicates the interrupting word/phrase
Introductory Matter Rule: When a word or phrase occurs at the beginning of a sentence, a comma should usually separate it from the independent clause.

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Examples
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the introductory matter

Yes, we expect to attend the Christmas party.

No, you shouldn’t respond to a rhetorical question.

Honestly, why would you ever think that?

To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the food.

In my opinion, the movie was more compelling than the book.

Afterthoughts Definition: Tacks on additional information.

Rule: When a word of phrase follows the independent clause at the end of a sentence, it should normally be set off with a comma.

NOTE: It may however be essential to the meaning of the sentence, see Essential Afterthoughts.

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Examples
Legend:

  1. Green indicates the nonessential afterthought

I found the painting rather dull, to be honest.

You will be joining us for dinner, won’t you?

Leave some food for me, please.

We will not be attending the reception, however.


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