Comma before “Who”

Summary

Don’t use a comma before who when it presents information necessary to meaning, or a description that helps identify the person being spoken about (a restrictive clause). But use a comma before who when it introduces a description not essential to meaning (a nonrestrictive clause).

Examples
  • Restrictive: The woman who wrote this book has won an award.
    Who has won an award? The woman who wrote this book. Who introduces a clause essential to meaning, one that helps us identify the person being referred to.
  • Nonrestrictive: My friend Maya, who writes poetry, has won an award.
    We already know who is being referred to: Maya. Since the who clause is not necessary to identify the person being spoken about, it is enclosed in commas.

Remember to use a comma both before and after a nonrestrictive clause.

Example
  • Incorrect: Poor Farley, who hates traveling has to travel for a living.
    Correct: Poor Farley, who hates traveling, has to travel for a living.

The same rules apply to clauses introduced by whom and whose. Restrictive clauses (with essential information) don’t take commas. Nonrestrictive clauses (with an additional, optional description) are enclosed in commas.

Examples
  • Restrictive: The person whom you should discuss this with is Anita.
  • Nonrestrictive: My friend Maya, whom I told you about yesterday, has quit her job.
  • Restrictive: Is that the man whose keys you found?
  • Nonrestrictive: Farley, whose job involves meeting clients across the country, hates traveling.

Who as a relative pronoun

Use the pronoun who to introduce a clause that defines or describes someone.

Examples
  • The author who wrote this book has won an award.
    The clause “who wrote this book” describes “the author.”
  • Anita, who now works at NASA, is a scientist.
  • The player who collects the most marbles wins the game.

Such a clause, which describes a noun, is called a relative clause.

Example
  • I want to be with someone who understands me.
    The relative clause (“who understands me”) describes the noun phrase (“someone”).

Relative pronouns like who, whom, and whose connect relative clauses to the noun phrases they describe.

Examples
  • We need a carpenter who knows how to repair antiques.
    Who acts as a pronoun by referring to the noun: We need a carpenter + the carpenter knows how to repair antiques = We need a carpenter who knows how to repair antiques. It thus connects the description in the relative clause to the noun.
  • Is that the woman with whom you worked on the project?
  • The carpenter whose number I gave you repairs antiques.

In this article, we discuss when to use a comma before who and when to omit it. We also review the use of commas with whom and whose.

Restrictive clauses

Restrictive clauses, which help identify or define a person or a thing and are essential to meaning, don’t take commas. In contrast, nonrestrictive clauses, which are not essential to the meaning of a sentence but simply provide additional, optional information, are enclosed in commas.

Examples
  • Restrictive: People who liked the book will love the movie.
    Which people will love the movie? The ones who liked the book. Since this clause is essential to meaning (to understand who is being spoken about), it is not enclosed in commas.
  • Nonrestrictive: The is the fifth book by the author, who says it will be her last.
    Who introduces extra information that may be interesting but is not necessary to meaning (i.e., it is not needed to identify the person being spoken about). The information is therefore set off using commas.

Restrictive clauses limit or “restrict” the meaning of the noun being described. They are also called essential or defining clauses. Nonrestrictive clauses are also called nonessential or non-defining clauses and are enclosed in commas. Here are some more examples.

Examples
  • Restrictive: She is a woman who loves ice-cream.
  • Nonrestrictive: Rita, who loves ice-cream, just bought herself an ice-cream truck.
  • Restrictive: The parcel that was delivered this morning was empty.
  • Nonrestrictive: This shop, which used to be a bookstore, now sells phones.
  • Restrictive: The man whose car you hit the other day is at the door.
  • Nonrestrictive: My father, whose father was a doctor, is scared of doctors.

Whether a comma is required before who depends upon whether who introduces a restrictive or nonrestrictive clause in a sentence.

Comma before who

Don’t use a comma before who when it introduces a restrictive clause. Such a clause provides essential information that helps identify the person being described and is not enclosed in commas.

Examples
  • The man who ate your brownie is sitting over there eating ice-cream.
    Which man? The one who ate your brownie. The who clause is essential to meaning. Without it, we wouldn’t know which man is being referred to.
  • Is that the man who ate my brownie?
  • She is a person who loves animals.
  • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • I know someone who can help.
  • Students who wish to participate must register today.
  • I would like to thank those who believed in me all these years.
  • People who work in editing will find this website useful.

Use a comma before who when it introduces a nonrestrictive clause—one that provides extra information. Such a description may be interesting and even useful, but is not necessary to identify the person being spoken about and is enclosed in commas.

Examples
  • Tumkin, who works with me on this website, has won the lottery.
    We already know who is being spoken about: Tumkin. The who clause provides additional information not necessary to meaning or to understand who is being spoken about. It is therefore enclosed in commas.
  • My roommate, who is a dancer, acted in this movie.
  • The Murphys, who are old friends of ours, have bought the house next door.
  • I gave it to Maya, who said she would give it to Farley.
Caution

Remember to “close” your commas. Use a comma not just before a nonrestrictive clause but also after.

Example
  • Incorrect: Farley’s neighbor, who’s a drummer likes to practice at night.
    Correct: Farley’s neighbor, who’s a drummer, likes to practice at night.

The use of commas thus depends on meaning. If it is clear who is being referred to without the who clause, the information is parenthetical and enclosed in commas. If the who clause is necessary to identify the person being spoken about, don’t use commas.

Examples
  • Restrictive: We interviewed the senator who introduced the bill in Congress last week.
    Who was interviewed? The senator who introduced the bill in Congress last week. Without this information, we wouldn’t know who is being spoken about. Don’t use commas.
  • Nonrestrictive: We interviewed Sen. Sara Garcia about this new bill. The senator, who introduced the bill in Congress last week, is a vocal supporter of women’s rights.
    Who was interviewed? Sen. Sara Garcia. The who clause is not necessary to identify the person being spoken about. Enclose it in commas.

Don’t use a comma before who in indirect and reported questions.

Examples
  • Incorrect: Lulu wanted to know, who had called.
    Correct: Lulu wanted to know who had called.
  • Incorrect: I wonder, who they’ll make manager now.
    Correct: I wonder who they’ll make manager now.

Comma before whom

Use a comma before whom when it introduces a nonrestrictive clause (providing an optional description not essential to meaning), but omit it when whom introduces a restrictive clause (with information essential to meaning).

Examples
  • Restrictive: I have been betrayed by those whom I trusted.
  • Restrictive: Here is a list of people whom you called yesterday.
  • Nonrestrictive: The Garcias, whom you met at the wedding, are old friends of ours.
  • Nonrestrictive: Anita, whom you called by mistake, is a lawyer.

The same rules apply even when whom is the object of a preposition (like with, to, about).

Examples
  • Restrictive: The specialist with whom you spoke earlier is not available.
  • Restrictive: The woman to whom this letter is addressed no longer works here.
  • Nonrestrictive: Dr. Dash, with whom you spoke yesterday, is not available.
  • Nonrestrictive: My daughter, to whom this letter is addressed, no longer lives here.

Whom functions as the object of a verb or preposition, and who as the subject.

Examples
  • Subject: The girl who ate all the cookies is Rita.
    “Who” is the subject of the verb “ate,” the person who performed the action.
  • Object of verb: The girl whom you met yesterday is Rita.
    “Whom” is the object of the verb “met,” the recipient of the action (“you” is the subject of that verb).
  • Object of preposition: The girl with whom you spoke yesterday is Rita.
    “Whom” is the object of the preposition “with.”
Tip

Who can always replace whom in a sentence (whom is seen more often in formal usage). But whom cannot replace who as the subject.

Comma before whose

As with who, use a comma before whose when it begins a nonrestrictive clause (providing an optional description), but omit the comma when whose begins a restrictive clause (presenting information essential to meaning).

Examples
  • Restrictive: Passengers whose flights are delayed have been given food coupons.
  • Restrictive: The man whose car you borrowed is at the door.
  • Restrictive Each of the students whose applications I reviewed has been selected for the next round.
  • Nonrestrictive: Anita, whose daughter goes to school with yours, is my sister.
  • Nonrestrictive: My mother, whose mother was a poet, is a poet.
  • Nonrestrictive: Minerva Dash, whose book just won an award, used to work at this library.
Tip

Whose is different from who’s. Whose is a possessive, while who’s is a contraction of “who is” or “who has.”

Examples
  • Rita, who’s a drummer, likes to practice at night.
    who’s = who is (contraction)
  • Farley, whose neighbor is a drummer, gets very little sleep.
    whose neighbor = Farley’s neighbor (possessive)

Examples from literature

Here are some examples from published content that show how nonrestrictive clauses introduced by who are enclosed in commas. Note how in these sentences, who merely introduces additional information, rather than providing details required to identify the person being spoken about.

Examples
  • He was an indolent man, who lived only to eat, drink, and play at cards.
    Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  • He took a seat opposite Catherine, who kept her gaze fixed on him as if she feared he would vanish were she to remove it.
    Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)
  • Rachel, who was slow to accept the fact that only a very few things can be said even by people who know each other well, insisted on knowing what he meant.
    Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (1915)
  • Unlike wizards, who like nothing better than a complicated hierarchy, witches don’t go in much for the structured approach to career progression.
    Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters (1988)
  • My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before.
    Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013)

The following examples show who used without a comma. In these sentences, who introduces a clause essential to meaning.

Examples
  • Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.
    George Orwell, Inside the Whale and Other Essays (1940)
  • Then again you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, ‘It’s a secret between he and I.’
    J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  • People who believe in miracles do not make much fuss when they actually encounter one.
    Alice Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
  • I am capable of affection for those who reflect my own world.
    Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
  • People who call themselves realists are often the biggest optimists of all.
    Stephen King, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015)

Finally, these examples show how commas are omitted before whom and whose to introduce a restrictive clause, while nonrestrictive clauses introduced by whom and whose are enclosed in commas (just like those introduced by who).

Examples
  • Restrictive: It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about.
    Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
  • Nonrestrictive: This is Miss Shepherd, whom I love.
    Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1849)
  • Restrictive: What was he here in this world whose impact loosed storms in his blood?
    Richard Wright, The Long Dream (1958)
  • Nonrestrictive: It was enchanting, a delicate fairy-tale cat, whose Siamese genes showed in the shape of the face, ears, tail, and the subtle lines of its body.
    Doris Lessing, On Cats (1983)

Usage guide

Don’t use a comma before who when it introduces information necessary to identify the person being referred to (restrictive clause), but use one when who presents an optional description not necessary to meaning (nonrestrictive clause). With whom and whose as well, use commas only when they introduce optional information not necessary to identify the person being spoken about. Don’t use commas when these pronouns present information essential to the meaning of a sentence.

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Did You Know?

Plurals of names are formed simply by adding s or es without an apostrophe.
Know more:How to Form Plurals of Names and Other Proper Nouns