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The question about commas in English has always been really difficult for me. I was told in school, that commas are not that important in English meaning that there are not so strict rules for using commas (compared to German). This confuses me all the time. For example:

I have the following sentence:

The modules , used by the software tool , are introduced in this chapter.

Would you use both of the commas?

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    They're very important as a rule. Here, whether or not you use them governs the meaning. 'The modules used by the software tool are introduced in this chapter' means 'Those modules which are used by the software tool are introduced in this chapter' (the clause defines which modules) whereas 'The modules, used by the software tool, are introduced in this chapter' means 'The modules (which, incidentally, are used by the software tool) are introduced in this chapter.' Mar 23 '20 at 16:14
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    Does this answer your question? Is it appropriate to put a comma before "which"? Note that the question Relative clause – comma or no comma? was closed as a duplicate of the one just cited. Mar 23 '20 at 16:16
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    Restrictive vs non-restrictive relatives is one use of commas, and you can hear them. But that's only one use; most of the time, commas are audible as an intonation dip (not a pause -- there are very few pauses in speech). When you can hear them in your mind's ear, put them in. When you don't, don't. Noticing them in speech is something anybody can learn, native speaker or not; learning every grammatical construction that might need commas is not the right way to go about learning to use commas. Mar 23 '20 at 17:58
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    Yes, that's a problem for English speakers writing German, too. But commas in English don't follow syntactic rules as they do in German. In fact, most English speakers and writers can't really tell you the rules they use for them because Anglophone schools don't teach English phonology or grammar so they have no referents. And they often use very strange rules of their own construction to "explain" what is just their hearing or not hearing the intonation cue. Then there's the problem that a significant proportion of native speakers never learn to "hear" what they're reading and writing. Mar 23 '20 at 23:42
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    You wrote "I was told in school, that commas..." = "Mir wurde gesagt, dass Kommata...". Unlike in German no comma is used in English to separate the reporting clause from its content clause. It should be "I was told in school that commas..." .
    – Shoe
    Apr 11 '20 at 14:24
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If the relative clause does not provide information necessary to the meaning of the sentence, do separate with commas:

"Jim, who shares my love of writing, helped me edit this book."

Here, "who shares my love of writing" is information that's nice to know--perhaps even helpful as context--but it's not crucial to the meaning of the rest of the sentence. "Jim helped me edit this book" can be understood all the same without this relative clause. Thus, we separate this relative clause with commas.

If the relative clause provides necessary information for the sentence to make sense, then don't separate the clause with commas:

"Every criminal who has been convicted of murder must be put behind bars."

Here, "who has been convicted of murder" is essential to the meaning of the sentence. It would be a gross misreading of the sentence to gloss over this relative clause by reading: "Every criminal must be put behind bars."

Let's look at this now:

The modules, [which are] used by the software tool, are introduced in this chapter.

Is "used by the software tool" a friendly tip to remind your reader that the modules happen to be used by the software tool? If so, you probably want to use commas. But if this clause is a way of specifying specific modules, and without such specification the sentence means something different, then don't use commas. Your case, I think, is a matter of context and intended meaning.

So, for example, the sentence could be employed in two different ways, one which requires commas and another that doesn't.

With commas (relative clause is not necessary for basic understanding of the sentence):

Welcome to my guide on CSS modules. The modules, used by the software tool, are introduced in this chapter.

Without commas (relative clause is necessary for basic understanding of the sentence):

In this book, I will introduce two types of modules in our products: the modules used by the hardware and the modules used by the software tool. The modules used by the software tool are introduced in this chapter.

Some other examples:

"Blessed is the man who listens to me." Proverbs 8:34

"Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked." Psalm 1:1

"You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden.” Genesis 3:3

It gets trickier, though. Sometimes you may not want to use commas for very short relative clauses, just because cutting a sentence into many short segments may not be aesthetically pleasing. What's more, in many cases the necessity of the information in the relative clause may be quite ambiguous. The tone of speech may also factor into your decision to use or not use commas: do you want to put short pauses in your sentence where the commas go? Moreover, when you don't write out the relative pronoun (which, who, that) and only imply it, the requirement to use commas may loosen somewhat. Consider the following more ambiguous cases:

"Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday." Song of Songs 1:7

"Then God said, 'Take your son, your only son, whom you love--Isaac--and go to the region of Moriah.'" Genesis 22:2

Genesis 3:11 is translated with and without a comma separating the relative clause, depending on the translation:

NIV "Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?"

KJV, JPS (1917) "Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?"

So, basically, treat everything I said with a grain of salt. It's useful as a rule of thumb, but it's not an especially strict convention. Hope this helps!

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  • Thanks a lot for your detailed answer. Honestly I'm still having a fairly hard time finding out where to use commas. In the examples 'Every criminal who has been convicted of murder must be put behind bars' I think that the relative clause is as necessary as the one in your other example 'Jim, who shares my love of writing, helped me edit this book'. Why should the relative clause not be important for the latter sentence. Jim likes to write and this might be the reason why helps editing the book. For me this information is basically even more important thatn the one of the other sentence
    – PeterBe
    Mar 24 '20 at 17:43
  • Any further comments on that? For me the 'ruleof essential information in the relative clause' is only a matter of interpretation. I see the examples from Zachary Shuster in a different way meaning I have an opposed interpretation of them (see previous post)
    – PeterBe
    Mar 25 '20 at 18:53
  • The difference between a restrictive (essential) vs nonrestrictive (nonessential) clause is whether or not it changes the meaning of the main sentence (composed of the subject and verb). "who has been convicted of murder" is a restrictive clause because it restricts the subject "criminal." We're not saying that any old criminal must be put behind bars;_only_criminals who have been convicted of murder must be put behind bars. On the other hand, "who shares my love of writing" is a non-restrictive clause because it does not restrict the subject "Jim." Mar 26 '20 at 10:47
  • "who shares my love of writing" may be important and helpful, as all words in a sentence should be, and it may explain why Jim is editing. But the main thrust of the sentence--that "Jim helped me edit" is not distorted if we take out "who shares my love of writing." We're still talking about the same Jim, even though we didn't volunteer much useful information about him beyond his name. At the end of the day, it's not an exact science, but I hope this helps you have a basic idea of the difference. See here for some more examples: academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/grammar/clauses Mar 26 '20 at 10:51
  • Thanks for your answers and effort Zachary Shuster
    – PeterBe
    Mar 26 '20 at 15:01
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In comments, John Lawler wrote:

Restrictive vs non-restrictive relatives is one use of commas, and you can hear them. But that's only one use; most of the time, commas are audible as an intonation dip (not a pause -- there are very few pauses in speech). When you can hear them in your mind's ear, put them in. When you don't, don't. Noticing them in speech is something anybody can learn, native speaker or not; learning every grammatical construction that might need commas is not the right way to go about learning to use commas.

Then in response to the asker mentioning that he’s a native speaker of German, John Lawler further wrote:

Yes, that's a problem for English speakers writing German, too. But commas in English don't follow syntactic rules as they do in German. In fact, most English speakers and writers can't really tell you the rules they use for them because Anglophone schools don't teach English phonology or grammar so they have no referents. And they often use very strange rules of their own construction to "explain" what is just their hearing or not hearing the intonation cue. Then there's the problem that a significant proportion of native speakers never learn to "hear" what they're reading and writing.

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In comments, Edwin Ashworth wrote:

They're very important as a rule.

Here, whether or not you use them governs the meaning.

  • 'The modules used by the software tool are introduced in this chapter' means 'Those modules which are used by the software tool are introduced in this chapter' (the clause defines which modules)

whereas

  • 'The modules, used by the software tool, are introduced in this chapter' means 'The modules (which, incidentally, are used by the software tool) are introduced in this chapter.'

But restrictive & non-restrictive relative clauses have been covered here time and time again.

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