Comma in Relative Clauses or Дом, который построил Джек

Everybody knows the famous poem This is the house that Jack built. If we compare it with the Russian version Дом, который построил Джек, we can notice the difference in punctuation. Both sentences contain relative clauses but the rules of punctuation in Russian and English are different.

Types of Clauses

English language has two types of relative clauses: defining and non-defining, and the rules of punctuation in the two are opposite. This causes confusion among non-native English speakers. For instance, my analysis of different written assignments proved that only 50% of my upper-intermediate level students use different types of relative clauses with accurate punctuation.

Let’s blow the lid off the mystery

Rule 1: A defining clause gives necessary information about the noun it modifies. That means we can’t omit this relative clause without changing the meaning of the whole sentence. Look at the famous quote from Bruce Lee:

And in the Academic Context?

In academic writing the clarity of the message plays a particularly important role. Hence, it is vital to pay close attention to the punctuation used in defining and non-defining clauses. One comma can make a difference.

How to avoid ambiguity?

To put commas in an appropriate way:

  • Try to omit the relative clause
  • If the sentence still makes sense, use commas
  • If the sentence doesn’t make sense, no commas are used

Check yourself with with the quiz:

  1. As other ideologies, native speakerism is spread, normalized, and supported by powerful discourses that are evident in how the English language has been taught and presented in course books.
  2. The second part is mainly concerned with formalisms within which it can be proved that a strategy will achieve a goal.
  3. For all participants, their MA constituted their first long residence abroad and except for Masa who was a frequent traveller to foreign countries the other teachers’ travel abroad experiences were quite limited.
  4. Yoshi and Sato who were both in their late twenties completed the same MA programme in 2014.

Answers:

  1. As other ideologies, native speakerism is spread, normalized, and supported by powerful discourses that are evident in how the English language has been taught and presented in course books.
  2. The second part is mainly concerned with formalisms within which it can be proved that a strategy will achieve a goal.
  3. For all participants, their MA constituted their first long residence abroad and except for Masa, who was a frequent traveller to foreign countries, the other teachers’ travel abroad experiences were quite limited
  4. Yoshi and Sato, who were both in their late twenties, completed the same MA programme in 2014.
  • BrE: which is used in both types of relative clauses in writing. That is used in spoken language.

Useful Resources

Cambridge Dictionary: Relative Defining and Non-defining Clauses

References

Peng, J. (2020). Teacher interaction strategies and situated willingness to communicate. ELT Journal, 74(3), 307–317. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccaa012

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.

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