Restrictive and Nonrestrictive ... What?!

Candice M. Coleman, Ph.D.


At a recent “Lift Up Your Voice!” seminar I presented in California, there was a lot of interest concerning Lamar’s phrasing principle, Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Modifiers. (See Giving the Sense: How to Read Aloud with Meaning, p. 87.) We also discussed this Analytical Reading principle in another article “Beautiful Temple or Beautiful Gate?

Let’s quickly review. A modifier is a word or phrase which gives information about the word being described – the antecedent. Our job as readers is to determine if the modifier restricts or limits the antecedent; if it is essential to the meaning of the sentence (or phrase) or is simply added information. We then determine the best way to phrase it to bring out the meaning. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

In Genesis 12:1, the Lord tells Abram:

Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:

If the modifier is “that I will shew thee,” what is the antecedent? What is going to be shown? Isn’t it “a land”?

The question now becomes, does “that I will shew thee,” limit or restrict this “land” from every other “land”? It does, doesn’t it? It’s a specific land, the one that the Lord will show Abram. So this is a Restrictive Modifier construction. Therefore, you want to connect the modifier to its antecedent. (You can use a caret or arc between the words to mark it.) By keeping the two elements close together, you’re helping your listener understand more clearly what the writer meant.

… unto a land^that I will shew thee:

(Quick Tip — Every time you pause, you stop your listener’s thought. Make certain it’s at a place which doesn’t leave a question in their minds.)

There’s another Restrictive Modifier construction in Hebrews 11:8 (to;):

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed;

Do you see a modifier? What is it? Could it be “which he should after receive for an inheritance”? And the antecedent? How about “a place”? The next and most important question: is the modifier crucial to understanding the antecedent? It is, isn’t it? If you agree, you’d connect the two.

…. when he was called to go out into a place^which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed;

(Quick Tip — Even though we’re discussing a phrasing principle, there is also an emphasis aspect in a Restrictive Modifier. In conversation, we will usually stress an idea in the modifier. In this example, wouldn’t it be “inheritance”?)

A Nonrestrictive Modifier contains the same two parts — a modifier and it’s antecedent. However, in this case, the modifier isn’t needed to define the antecedent; it’s simply added information. Although it might present something new and interesting, it isn’t absolutely necessary to the meaning. Therefore, you will want to pause between the modifier and antecedent. (A slash (/) is a good mark to use.)

As an example, look at Matthew 6:9:

Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much:

Isn’t the modifier “which are many”? The antecedent is generally directly in front of the modifier or very close to it. In this case, what is it? Yes, it’s “her sins.” The next question to ask is whether the modifier is essential to the meaning of the verse or if it’s added information. If the modifier is removed and the verse read – “her sins are forgiven” wouldn’t the verse still make sense?

Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, / which are many, [/] are forgiven; for she loved much:

The pause after the modifier is optional and in this case, the commas give you a clue to the phrasing, but be careful. We don’t pause because of the punctuation, we pause because of the meaning.

Punctuation (especially commas in the King James Bible) can’t always be relied on. Written punctuation (the kind we learned in school) is for the eye. When we read aloud, we use “aural” punctuation to help the ear understand. As mentioned in “Beautiful Gate”, if someone is unclear about the meaning of something they’re reading silently, they can go back and reread it until they figure it out. However, when we listen to something being read aloud, there’s only one opportunity to understand. As readers, shouldn’t we make certain that we’re using our phrasing to make the meaning as clear as possible?

One final verse on this subject — Acts 17:24:

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

Is “that made the world and all things therein” restrictive or nonrestrictive to “God”? At first glance, it might look restrictive, but is there anything that can limit God? Can anything be added to God? Then, isn’t it nonrestrictive and wouldn’t you pause?

For you all with sharp eyes, you probably noticed another opportunity in this verse to decide if a modifier is restrictive or nonrestrictive. Look at “dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” What are the modifier and antecedent? Is the construction restrictive or nonrestrictive? Would you pause or connect? Where? If you can’t figure it out, email me.

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Modifiers can help you and your congregation make more sense of some very long and complicated Bible passages, as well as some seemingly “easy” ones. Sharing the writer’s meaning with listeners is an important objective. Analytical Reading is a comprehensive tool to help you do that.

For more information and examples of this and other logical principles and conversational patterns, please go to Giving the Sense: How to Read Aloud With Meaning. If you don’t have a copy, you can order one here.

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©2019, Say It Well! Permission is given to reprint this article if the following is included: Reprinted by permission of Dr. Candice M. Coleman. She can be reached at 386-402-7047.