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The Power of Nonrestrictive Elements: An Emotional Guide to Grammar



I am, unequivocally, a sentence girl. I love the craft, the swing, of words that builds to create narration. Most of my experience with grammar—as a student, as a tutor, and as an editor—is about errors. Finding errors. Fixing errors. Teaching others how to find and fix errors. But grammar is so much more than that! It influences tone. It can leave your readers breathless. In this series of blog posts, I will attempt to take an emotional look at grammar and to unpack its secret language, which lies beyond the rules we learned in composition.


Today, I want to talk about nonrestrictive elements and their disruptive power. First, a quick (I promise!) re-cap of the rules:


  1. Words or groups of words that describe nouns or pronouns are either restrictive or nonrestrictive. They can come in many forms: adjective clauses, adjective phrases, and appositives.

  2. A word or word group is restrictive if it is essential to the modified word's meaning. If it is not essential to the meaning, then it is nonrestrictive.

  3. Always separate nonrestrictive elements with commas.


Okay, now that that’s over, cue the music.


Nonrestrictive phrases are like little pockets in which a writer can place something precious. They are brief interruptions in the flow of thought that, when done well, can add beauty, fear, and innumerable complications to an otherwise straight-forward sentence.


Take this example from Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, in which the narrator discusses her first experiences emailing her mother when the technology first emerged in the nineties:


“Together we entered this new space that now opened up between people, a connection with no precise beginning or end, that was always potentially open, and my mother was one of the first people I knew to understand this and exploit it fully” (306).

Here, Smith employs one restrictive element and two nonrestrictive elements to describe this “new space” that email has created. The phrases build upon each other, in an almost exhaustive way. But—ah!—this is where structure and meaning converge. The overabundance of nonrestrictive phrases (and one that seems to break the rules by using “that,” which, technically, should only be used in restrictive phrases) mimics what is revealed later in the sentence, in the second independent clause: the mother’s exploitation of the never-ending nature of email. In other words, the sentence begins with two people stepping into foreign territory together, navigating the new waters of email, and the nonrestrictive phrases act as a transition, a turning point, a downward spiral, into what one mother does with a continuous line of communication with her daughter. It’s brilliant. And funny.


Have I mentioned I love Zadie Smith?


I do. I love her.


Here is another example of nonrestrictive-element power in Téa Obreht’s story “Blue Water Djinn”:


“He scrambled up the narrow ledge, which was slippery, wet with the tide, alive with tiny creatures scattered by his strides.

Obreht uses three nonrestrictive elements to describe the sea ledge on which her character is climbing. As in the example from Smith, there is an abundance of nonrestrictive elements. And the effect, I think, is similar. It mimics a downward motion, but in this example, the phrases move the reader deeper into the moment. The sentence begins quite far away, with an aerial view of the boy moving up the ledge. And then, in nonrestrictive elements, Obreht moves us closer, so we can feel the slickness beneath the character’s feet, and then she moves us even even closer, so we can feel the minuscule creatures crawling along the rocks.


Nonrestrictive elements wake up the reader. They are disruptive descriptions that make worlds come alive. They are whispers that echo. They are the zoom lenses on your cameras, moving your readers closer to your stories.


What are some of your favorite examples of powerful nonrestrictive elements? Please comment below and let me know!