What’s the Difference?

Distinguishing Between Restrictive and Non-restrictive Qualifiers

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A restrictive modifier is information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Without it, something important would be missing. For example, in the sentence “The beach that we go to every summer is in California”, the modifier “that we go to every summer” is essential information. The speaker is referencing a specific beach by distinguishing it. It is not just a beach in California, but a specific one. 

A non-restrictive modifier, meanwhile, is a clause that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. For example: “Jade, a quick-learning girl, loves her dog and her grandfather.” In this sentence, while “a quick-learning girl” does provide some context to who Jade is, it is not essential to the ultimate meaning of the sentence.

Often what qualifies as a restrictive or non-restrictive modifier is very context dependent. However, there are a few quick ways to tell, as seen on the next page.