Restrictive Clauses | Examples & Definition

Sentence and word structure updated on  April 3, 2024 4 min read

Restrictive clauses are a type of relative clause (or adjective clause) that gives essential, identifying information about a noun or pronoun. Restrictive clauses typically begin with the relative pronouns “that,” “who,” “whom,” or “whose.”

Restrictive clauses (also called essential clauses) cannot be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning or making the meaning unclear.

Restrictive clause examples
I want the phone that has the best camera.
The woman who is leading the meeting is my boss.
The person whose wallet this is must be looking for it.
I can’t find the man whom I gave my coat to.

What is a restrictive clause?

A restrictive clause is one of two types of relative clauses (the other type is a nonrestrictive clause), which act as adjectives in sentences to give more information about a noun or pronoun.

Like all relative clauses, restrictive clauses are dependent clauses—they cannot stand on their own as a sentence. They follow the noun they modify and typically begin with the relative pronouns “that,” “who,” “whom,” or “whose.”

Restrictive clauses are often used to narrow down the noun they describe by answering the implied question “which one?” When they are removed from a sentence, the sentence typically still makes grammatical sense. However, the meaning may change, or the sentence may be too vague to be meaningful.

Restrictive clause sentence examples
The book that I just finished reading was excellent.
The book was excellent. [without the relative clause]
[The relative clause answers the question “Which book?”]
Students who don’t learn time management do poorly in college.
Students do poorly in college. [without the relative clause]
[The relative clause provides essential information about “students.”]

Restrictive vs nonrestrictive clauses

The other type of relative clause is a nonrestrictive clause (or nonessential clause), which also acts as an adjective to give information about a noun.

However, unlike restrictive clauses, nonrestrictive clauses give extra, nonessential information and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Restrictive vs nonrestrictive clause examples
The man who is wearing a blue vest is my dad.
My dad, who is wearing a blue vest, is giving me a ride home
We are going to take the train that leaves at 3 p.m.
The train to Edinburgh, which leaves at 3 p.m., is never late.

Nonrestrictive clauses are always set off from the rest of the sentence by commas, while restrictive clauses are not.

Additionally, note that restrictive clauses are often used with nouns representing general categories (“the man,” “the train”), while nonrestrictive clauses are often used with more specific nouns (“my dad,” “the train to Edinburgh”). With proper nouns (e.g., “Caroline,” “Mt. Everest”), nonrestrictive clauses are almost always used.

Relative pronouns

All relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun. The most common relative pronouns and their uses are shown in the table below.

Relative pronoun

Use

Example

That
  • Describes things
  • Used in restrictive clauses
The bicycle that has a red basket is mine.
Which
  • Describes things
  • Used in nonrestrictive clauses
My bicycle, which I got for my birthday, has a red basket.
Who
  • Describes people
  • Used as a subject pronoun
  • Used in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses
The boy who is playing in the sandbox is my son.

My son, who will turn 4 next week, is playing in the sandbox.
Whose
  • Describes ownership
  • Used in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses
The person whose car this is needs to move it.

My neighbor, whose car is very nice, is building a new garage.
Whom
  • Describes people
  • Used as an object pronoun
  • Used in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses
The woman whom I bought my tickets from was very kind.

My friends, whom I bought tickets for, are going with me to the concert.

Note
In British English, “which” can be used in both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.
The pub that Gemma owns is closing.
The pub which Gemma owns is closing.

In American English, “which” is only used in nonrestrictive clauses.
The bar that Gemma owns is closing.
The bar which Gemma owns is closing.

Dropping the relative pronoun

The relative pronoun can be omitted in restrictive clauses when the pronoun functions as an object in the clause. This means that “whom” is almost always dropped in restrictive clauses (since it is only used for objects), and “that” is frequently dropped.

It can be tricky to identify whether a pronoun is acting as a subject or object. Remember that a clause always has a subject and a verb. If there is no other subject in a clause, the relative pronoun is acting as the subject and cannot be dropped.

Optional relative pronoun examples

Required relative pronoun examples

The scarf [that] Ian knitted is beautiful.

The scarf that has blue stripes is mine.

I’m going to the park with the child [whom] I mentor.

The colleague who has mentored me the most is Deb.

Note
Sentences with restrictive clauses are often rephrased using prepositional phrases or participial phrases instead. This often sounds more natural, especially in speech.

You should wear the coat that has gold buttons.
You should wear the coat with gold buttons.

The man who is standing at the podium is the donor.
The man standing at the podium is the donor.

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What is the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses?

Both restrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses are types of relative clauses (or adjective clauses), which act as adjectives in sentences to describe nouns or pronouns.

  • Restrictive clauses give essential identifying information about the nouns they modify. They often answer the question “which one?” If they are removed from a sentence, the meaning of the sentence is changed or becomes unclear (e.g., “Apples that are picked too early are sour”).
  • Nonrestrictive clauses give extra, nonessential information about the nouns they modify. They can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning or making it unclear (e.g., “Apples, which are my favorite fruit, are high in fiber”).

Nonrestrictive clauses are set off from the rest of the sentence by commas. Restrictive clauses do not require commas.

What is a defining relative clause?

“Defining relative clause” is another name for a restrictive clause, which is a type of relative clause (or adjective clause) that gives essential identifying information about the noun or pronoun it modifies (e.g., “The girl who is holding a teddy bear is my daughter”).

Restrictive clauses cannot be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning or making it unclear.

What is a non-defining relative clause?

“Non-defining relative clause” is another name for a nonrestrictive clause, which is a type of relative clause (or adjective clause) that gives extra, nonessential information about the noun or pronoun it modifies (e.g., “I am going to visit Lake Superior, which is the world’s largest freshwater lake”).

Nonrestrictive clauses can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning.

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Kayla Anderson Hewitt

Kayla has a master's degree in teaching English as a second language. She has taught university-level ESL and first-year composition courses. She also has 15 years of experience as an editor.

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