The bracketing comma
Bracketing commas usually come in pairs. They are used to mark information which is not essential to the meaning of a sentence. Such non-essential information is called a “non-restrictive phrase” or a “weak interruption”. E.g.:
All the Partners, including the General Partner, have the right to participate in the General Meeting.
Note that the section between the commas can be removed and the sentence still makes sense. This is ALWAYS true with bracketing commas:
All the Partners have the right to participate in the General Meeting.
The Purchaser represents that, as of the date of this Agreement, it is not aware of any breach of the Warranty.
We can conclude, in view of the above, that the application was correctly submitted.
This company, which is registered in Cyprus, has offices throughout CEE.
If the weak interruption comes at the beginning or the end of the sentence use only one bracketing comma:
In view of the above, we can conclude that the application was correctly submitted.
After a brief analysis of the documents you sent, we recommend a full due diligence.
A full-time employee’s salary may not be lower than the national minimum monthly salary, which is currently 1,276 PLN.
I have discussed the matter with David South, who is a specialist in renewable energy.
The sentences still make sense if the words set off by the comma are removed.
Bracketing commas with relative clauses
What is the difference in meaning between these two sentences?
The branch, which we established in Sofia, has 12 employees.
The branch which we established in Sofia has 12 employees.
The first contains a non-defining relative clause; i.e. the commas indicate that the relative clause (which we established in Sofia) is non-essential information and that the sentence still makes sense if it is removed:
The branch has 12 employees.
So there is only one branch.
The second contains a defining relative clause; i.e. the lack of commas indicates that the relative clause is essential information and that the sentence does NOT make sense without it.
The defining relative clause defines WHICH branch we’re referring to.
So there is more than one branch.
The branch, which we established in Sofia has 12 employees.
The branch which we established in Sofia, has 12 employees.
Another example: What is the difference in meaning between these two sentences?
The employees, who have been employed for more than 10 years, are entitled to an additional 6 days of annual holiday leave.
The employees who have been employed for more than 10 years are entitled to an additional 6 days of annual holiday leave.
First version (non-defining relative clause) – all the employees have been employed for more than 10 years; all are entitled to the extra 6 days of leave.
Second version (defining relative clause) – only the employees that have been employed for more than 10 years are entitled to the extra 6 days of leave.
It is a common mistake to add commas to relative clauses when they should not be there (thus making a non-defining relative clause when the sentence requires a defining one).
A small business is defined as a business, which employs fewer than 50 persons and whose annual turnover is less than EUR 10 million.
Putting the comma before “which” implies the relative clause contains non-essential information. But here the information is essential and the sentence does not make sense if the relative clause is removed:
A small business is defined as a business.
So the comma should be deleted:
A small business is defined as a business which employs fewer than 50 persons and whose annual turnover is less than EUR 10 million.
Bracketing commas with participle clauses
The rules for using bracketing commas with participle clauses are the same as the rules for relative clauses.
If the information in the clause can be left out – use commas:
Due to a recent amendment, executed in December 2014, the course of action you suggest would now be unlawful.
The Court decided to refer the matter back to the Prosecutor’s Office, instructing that it should reassess the grounds for opening a criminal investigation.
If the information in the clause is essential – do not use commas:
The agent gaining the highest sales average will receive a special bonus.
We would like to lease the shop premises situated closest to the food court.
I have explained that bracketing commas are used to set off “weak interruptions” in sentences.
Dashes are used in exactly the same way to set off so-called “strong interruptions”. For example:
Dotcom Sp. z o.o. – not Dotcom S.A. – is the owner of the shares.
In our opinion – which we strongly believe is the correct opinion – all the formalities have been fulfilled, but we cannot guarantee that the competition authority will agree with us.
Only use bracketing commas if the sentence will still make sense when the words set off by the commas are removed.
Remember to use TWO bracketing commas if the weak interruption is in the middle of the sentence.