More on commas' job setting off nonrestrictive information


“A Bay Area real estate heiress whose family posted $35-million bail to keep her out of jail until her trial was acquitted Friday of killing the father of her children.”

That’s the nut of a story published recently by the Los Angeles Times that raised a question in a reader’s mind: Should there be commas after “heiress” and “jail,” wondered Carol in Southern California?

As is the case for so many questions that land in my in-box, I can’t offer a clear yes or no answer. But I can present an argument about why I believe the answer is no.

The reason lies in the concepts of restrictive and nonrestrictive information.

Commas set off nonrestrictive matter, but they’re not used around restrictive stuff.

To see the difference, compare these two sentences: The man who stole my purse was wearing a baseball cap. The man, who stole my purse, was wearing a baseball cap.

In most but not all situations, the second one would be wrong. Why? Because we can be pretty sure that “who stole my purse” is intended as information that identifies which man you’re talking about.

That clause restricts the scope of the subject, helping the reader better figure out which man is “the man” in question. So the information about purse-stealing is crucial to understanding which man is being discussed. Here’s more in my recent column on commas’ role identifying restrictive and nonrestrictive information.

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