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  1. A good watchdog barks loudly when strangers come on your property, which gives you a feeling of security

  2. A good watchdog barks loudly when strangers come on your property which gives you a feeling of security

From the first sentence we get a sense that "property" gives a feeling of security. I find this absurd in the given context. But if I remove the comma before "which", does the meaning get changed to 'a good watchdog's barking gives a feeling of security'?

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2 Answers 2

When analyzing sentences for meaning, it's necessary to use common sense as well as the niceties of punctuation and syntax.

It should be clear that in the first sentence, the nonrestrictive relative pronoun which refers to the entire preceding clause (or perhaps only to A good watchdog barks loudly when strangers come) and not to property: that makes no sense in context. Perhaps it would be clearer if the sentence were:

A good watchdog barks loudly at strangers who come onto your property, which gives you a feeling of security.

This sentence can more easily be broken into meaningful parts:

(i) A good watchdog barks loudly, which gives you a feeling of security. [The prepositional phrase may or may not be necessary to give you a feeling of security, but if it's not there, it suggests that a loud bark (perhaps for no apparent reason) is what makes you feel secure.]

(ii) at strangers who come onto your property [This part defines the strangers and restricts the dog's barking only to times when they enter your property, so I think it's necessary for defining a "good watchdog" in this sentence.]

Your second sentence says exactly what you object to about the first sentence. Without the comma, the relative pronoun is restrictive and refers to "property that makes you feel secure". This is a good example of the ambiguity of that "that" and "which" and the absurdity (to borrow your judgmental term) of believing that they are always interchangeable and that it doesn't matter which one you use because readers will always be able to figure out what you mean.

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Thank you very much. –  Deepan Das Apr 16 '13 at 14:49

Actually the second sentence sounds like "which..." defines property. See this example:

I went to see the property which got sold yesterday. "Which got sold yesterday" defines "property".

Compare this to: I went to see the property, which was a mistake. In this case "which" introduces a phrase which refers to the entire previous sentence. The mistake was that last week I went to see the property.

In your examples the first one sounds more natural. It would mean that when the dog barks loudly, this gives you a feeling of security.

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Thank you very much. –  Deepan Das Apr 16 '13 at 14:50

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