TOEFL iBT Grammar: Non-Restrictive versus Restrictive Adjective Clauses – To Use or Not Use Commas

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Have good control of advanced grammar!

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During TOEFL IBT writing, you will be using adjective clauses when you are combining a main idea with a support idea (i.e., adjective clause). Moreover, as you construct your adjective clauses, you will have to make a decision about whether or not to use commas. You must be careful as you make this decision because using or not using commas may change the meaning of your sentence.

Punctuating adjective clauses correctly sends a signal to TOEFL iBT human raters that you have good control of advanced grammar; therefore, TOEFL iBT human raters will find it easier to give you a higher writing score. Additionally, you will send a certain meaning to your readers if you choose to use or not use commas with your adjective clauses.

For example, the sentence “The children who were playing soccer at the park are from Butterfield Elementary School” means all the children at the park are from the elementary school.

However, the sentence “The children, who were playing soccer at the park, are from Butterfield Elementary School” means some of the children at the park are from the elementary school.

Understanding the rules with punctuating adjective clauses is confusing both for non-native and native speakers alike. Part of the difficulty lies in learners limited knowledge of punctuation in general. Additionally, a lack of extensive writing and reading experience may also complicate matters. Finally, the punctuation rules from other languages may differ from those in English.

A simple set of rules can help you to improve your punctuating adjective clauses correctly.

1) If the adjective clause is not necessary (non-restrictive) but simply adds meaning to the independent clause with which it connects, use commas: Barack Obama, who is a senator from Illinois, is the next president of the United States.

2) If the adjective clause is necessary (restictive) in meaning to the independent clause with which it connects, do not use commas: The president who has served two consecutive terms is George W. Bush.

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