Teasing Trevor: When To Use A Comma With Dependent Clauses

Do you know which of these sentences needs another comma?

A. I liked the angle of Trevor’s jaw so I winked at him.
B. He surprised me when he sustained eye contact and circled his lips with his tongue.
C. I wanted to chew on those lips which seemed so juicy and pink.

Examples A & C each need a comma added but for different reasons.

Both clauses in Example A could stand on their own as complete sentences. They are independent clauses, and you need a conjunction (in this case, so) and a comma if you want to stick them together.

I liked the angle of Trevor’s jaw.

I winked at him.

I liked the angle of Trevor’s jaw, so I winked at him.

Example C also contains two clauses.

1. I wanted to chew on those lips.

2. Seemed so juicy and pink.

But the second clause doesn’t work as a complete sentence, does it? Example C combines a dependent clause and an independent clause, and they need a comma between them.

I wanted to chew on those lips, which seemed so juicy and pink.

Example B also combines an independent clause and a dependent clause, but these two clauses don’t need a comma between them.

independent clause: He surprised me

dependent clause: when he sustained eye contact and circled his lips with his tongue.

complete sentence: He surprised me when he sustained eye contact and circled his lips with his tongue.

What’s the difference between Example B’s dependent clause and Example C’s dependent clause? Why does one need a comma and not the other?

B. He surprised me when he sustained eye contact and circled his lips with his tongue.
C. I wanted to chew on those lips, which seemed so juicy and pink.

In Example B, the dependent clause changes the meaning of the sentence. Trevor didn’t just surprise the narrator in general. Trevor surprised the narrator by sustaining eye contact and circling his lips with his tongue. This dependent clause is restrictive. It restricts the meaning of the sentence. With restrictive dependent clauses, you don’t need a comma.

By contrast, the dependent clause in Example C simply adds description. It’s nonrestrictive. Take it away, and the meaning of the sentence remains the same. The narrator wants to chew Trevor’s lips. And by the way–not that it changes things at all–those lips seem juicy and pink. With restrictive dependent clauses, you need a comma.

Here are a few more examples:

nonrestrictive dependent clause—needs commas: His eyes, when they sustained contact with mine, surprised me.

restrictive dependent clause—no comma needed: I wanted to chew on the parts of him that seemed juicy and pink.

nonrestrictive dependent clause—needs a comma: I touched Trevor’s knee, which got his attention.

restrictive dependent clause—no comma needed: Trevor’s knee wasn’t the part of him that I really wanted to touch.

At Sexy Grammar, we teach writers to create tight, juicy, scantily clad sentences, and we combine sexually explicit examples with grammar instruction. You can be a sexy writer, and we can teach you how.

Check out more Sexy Grammar lessons. Get a Private Session with the Sexy Grammarian.

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  1. After reading this enlightening article, my head hurts so I think I need a break.

    I probably got my commas wrong in the above sentence, but I am a bit of a comma freak. In fact, the first thing I do in the editing process is remove excess commas!

    Love your sexy posts!

    • Thanks, Michael! I would move the comma to right before the word so. Like this:

      After reading this enlightening article my head hurts, so I think I need a break.

      Since your head doesn’t just hurt out of nowhere but from the article reading, “After reading this enlightening article” is restrictive. It changes the meaning of the sentence, so it should not be set apart with a comma.

      The last clause, though, is an independent clause. It can stand as a sentence on its own, so it needs to be set apart with a comma.

      I’m sorry about the headache. I hope you’re having a nice break!

    • Norm
    • July 6th, 2012

    Wow, Sexy G,

    If only my high school grammar teacher had used such salacious examples, I’d have learned those tedious lessons a lot faster. Wait! My high school grammar teacher exuded anti-eroticism. His titillations could have scarred me for life or, worse for him, ended his carreer. Thanks for replacing those faded memories with sensually memorable new ones.

    Can you explain why and when an exclamation point imitates a comma, and the associated punctuation and capitalization surrounding that powerful mark? I sometimes like to yell at people — just to get their attention.

    Yours always,

    Norm

  2. Darling Norman, I am so happy my approach heals those old sex-negative grammar wounds and adds sensual texture to your writing as an adult.

    Now, tell me more about these comma-imitating exclamation marks. Can you give me an example?

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