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Commas and Nonessentials: Rules for Nonessential Clauses

Nonessential words do not usually have information that is crucial to the meaning of the academic text. While essential elements define the main idea of the text, nonessentials are often used as side remarks that do not have the same meaning of importance. An example of this would be:

🟢 Bella, who is my favorite performer, decided to go unnoticed.

In the sentence above, “who is my favorite performer” acts as a nonessential clause. If removed from the sentence, we have “Bella decided to go unnoticed” left. The removal of the nonessential clause does not change the message hidden in the text. However, the addition of a nonessential clause brings a personal touch to the narrative. Nonessential elements are usually set off with commas. Another example of a nonessential clause would be the following:

🟢 He, the leader of his people, has to obey silly rules in order to get a promotion.

In the example above, “he has to obey silly rules” is the main clause. Meanwhile, “the leader of his people” is a nonessential clause. Commas are used before and after nonessential phrases. They are added to the text to clarify the meaning:

🟢 My trip, which was planned beforehand, has been postponed indefinitely.

If the nonessential clause is erased completely, the general meaning does not change the structure of the narrative. Punctuation rules can help identify nonessential elements and choose the right punctuation. An essential clause is not enclosed in commas since it presents an important part of the context. Nonessential clauses, on the other hand, need to be used with commas:

🟢 The group, which was loved by the teenagers, saluted the entering crowd.

In the example above, “which was loved by the teenagers” presents a nonessential clause.

Comparison of Essential and Nonessential Clauses

If you need to differentiate between the clauses, it is recommended to read them out loud and decide whether they add something to the sentence. If the idea of the text is still present, you have come across a nonessential clause. Here are some examples of how essential and nonessential clauses work in a sentence with the relative pronouns that have not been stated in a direct way:

🟢 The girl seated next to me at the dinner table was lost in thought.
In this case, the clause “seated next to me” is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
🟢 Students taking their tests for the class need to show up on Monday.
In the sentence above, the clause “taking their tests for the class” is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
🟢 The kitchen room, painted in warm tones, gave off a pleasant vibe.
In the example above, the clause “painted in warm tones” is nonessential to the meaning of the sentence.
🟢 The actors, dressed in white, suddenly appeared in the spotlight.
In the example above, the clause “dressed in white” is nonessential to the meaning of the sentence.

Determining whether the clause is essential or nonessential can be complicated. Knowing where the comma needs to be placed, however, is a part of the writer’s knowledge. It may not be so important in the eyes of regular readers, but it definitely improves the quality of academic content. Here are other examples of nonessential and essential clauses with the relative pronouns:

🟢 Coffee that is made with sugar helps me stay up late.
Essential clauses often start with “that,” which can be seen in the example above.
🟢 My favorite food, which is only served in this cozy diner, gives me energy for the day.
Nonessential clauses often start with “which” and do not contain any essential information.
🟢 The man who first walked on the surface of our natural satellite was lucky beyond measure.
Clauses that start with “who” are considered essential, as can be seen in the sentence above.
🟢 She was dragged into the tent to meet the general, whom she was scared to shake hands with.
Clauses starting with “whom” are often nonessential, which is displayed in the example above.


According to the examples that can be found above, relative pronouns are used for essential and nonessential clauses. In some cases, pronouns are only implied to be in a sentence, while in other cases they are inserted directly. Being aware of the proper use of punctuation marks plays a key part in understanding the function of clauses in a sentence.

The set of rules for essential and nonessential clauses may seem vague to the newcomers, but removing the nonessential clause definitely helps. It takes a certain amount of experience to tell the difference between the clauses in the written text.

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