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Should there be a comma in this:

providing young adults access to drugs grants younger teens complete access, which can not be accepted given the consequences that would follow

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1 Answer 1

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Yes, there should be a comma there.

The clause

[1] which can not be accepted given the consequences that would follow

is non-restrictive (indeed, which refers to the entire first clause rather than the noun phrase complete access). Thus, a comma is in order. See e.g. here.

That was 'traditional' analysis. CGEL would say that that [1] is a supplement whose anchor is the entire first clause (pp. 1350-1353). CGEL's point is that one should not conflate semantic issues (whether something is restrictive or non-restrictive) with syntactic issues (whether something is integrated in the structure of the sentence or supplemental). Usually they go together: restrictive elements are integrated, while non-restrictive are not. But there are exceptions; in paticular, it is possible to have elements which are syntactically integrated but sematically non-restrictive. CGEL gives the following examples of that (p. 1353):

[11] i The father who had planned my life to the point of my unsought arrival in Brighton
          took it for granted that in the last three weeks of his legal guardianship I would still
           act as he directed.
       ii This is my husband George.

In [i] the relative clause doesn't distinguish one father from another: the narrator has only one father, so the modifier provides non-restrictive information about him. And [ii] does not convey that the speaker has more than one husband.

It is for this reason that we have departed from the traditional account of relative clauses, in which the two main constructions are distinguished as 'restrictive' and 'non-restrictive'. A distinction in terms of integrated versus supplementary reflects the semantic difference more accurately and also matches the prosodic difference that distinguishes them in speech. It enables us, moreover, to capture the similarity between the unintegrated relatives and other elements that are semantically, prosodically, and syntactically unintegrated with the rest of the sentence: these can all be subsumed under the concept of supplement.

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