Comma with restrictive ‘which’

In Guy de Maupassant’s short story ‘Le Horla’, which I read in The Mountain Inn and other stories (Penguin Classics, 1955; translated by H. N. P. Sloman), I came across a restrictive clause using which and set off by a comma:

I had an experience today yesterday, which has upset me considerably.

Lest there be any doubt: the context indicates it was the particular experience the narrator had that upset him, not the fact of his having any old experience. The normal approach in such cases is to forgo the comma and use either which or that: I had an experience today which has upset me considerably.

I wonder at what point – and from whose hand – the comma appeared. Was it meant simply to signal a slight pause, its grammatical ambiguity an accident of shifting styles? Or was it inserted needlessly by an editor schooled in the fake that/which rule? Either way, it bears comparison with this rogue comma in a recent Guardian editorial.

21 Responses to Comma with restrictive ‘which’

  1. Perhaps I am wrong, but I perceive the above comma as a quantifier. The writer had one experience and no more.

    I would use the same comma with, say, food. “I had an apple today, which was delicious.” If the noun were followed by a restrictive clause (“I had an apple today which was delicious”), some may think that the speaker ate a tasty apple and several unpalatable ones.

    Being a non-native user of English, I may well be mistaken.

  2. joy says:

    Oh shucks, I was hoping the author was upset about having had an experience! I try to be flexible and recognize that usage varies – yet I really do like to feel that words should be interpreted as written (according to my rules, of course! ;-), so this fellow clearly wasn’t used to having experiences.

    • Eugene says:

      Yes, the idea of a person averse to having any experience is hilarious. The only thing funnier is the idea of a person upset by “today.” Talk about not living in the present!

  3. Laura says:

    It’s simple: The clause doesn’t modify “experience”; it modifies “today.” And since there is only one today (unless you’re referring to yesterday, which was today a day ago, or tomorrow which will be today), it requires a non-restrictive clause; hence, the “which” and the comma. Or maybe it’s just a typo.

    • Eugene says:

      Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, but it is today which has upset me. Isn’t it still restrictive?

      • dainichi says:

        ‘Yesterday’ and ‘today’ can be used both as nouns and adverbs. I don’t think it’s possible to modify their adverbial uses with a relative clause as Laura is suggesting.

        I mean, you’re obviously joking. I’m jus’ sayin’.

  4. bharatwrites says:

    I think it’s a non-restrictive ‘which’ here, and the comma seems appropriate. Today, we might even see this which-clause roped off and presented as a sentence fragment.

    I had an experience today. Which has upset me considerably.

  5. Kyle LENOVO says:

    I’d like to see the original French sentence as there are two distinct relative pronouns for this ‘context’.
    Is it “CE QUI m’a troublé” or “QUI m’a troublé” (whatever the verb for “upset” was).

    • mollymooly says:

      The actual English is “I had an experience yesterday, which has upset me considerably.” The corresponding French is “J’ai vu hier des choses qui m’ont beaucoup troublé.” It’s from the 1887 version, not the 1886 version. (Both here.)

      • Kyle LENOVO says:

        I couldn’t spot it on casual perusal of the online ‘texte intégral’, though I did spot a couple of relative clauses where Maupassant had placed a comma after the noun, prior to the ‘que’ introducing the subordinate clause, and thought it most strange.
        Perhaps the translator became contaminated!

  6. Stan says:

    Thanks for all your comments. Interesting that there are such different interpretations, ironic and otherwise. For what it’s worth, there’s a different translation here that phrases the line as follows: “I saw some things yesterday that troubled me very much.”

    Farkas, I see what you mean, but it’s impossible to have just one experience in a day. The clause is restrictive, so the comma is troublesome.

    Joy, Eugene: It certainly seems that way!

    Laura, I don’t know if your suggestion that “the clause […] modifies ‘today’” is serious or not. In any case, the which refers to the narrator’s experience; there’s no question about this.

    Bharat: Interesting alternative, but I don’t buy it; I’m quite sure the clause is restrictive.

    Kyle: Good idea. I didn’t have a chance to seek out the original French text, and I didn’t know if it would cast relevant light on the translation.

    Molly, thanks for the helpful link, and the correction.

  7. Oisín says:

    My immediate reaction would be to take out the comma. The only way i might read into it so it could be correct is if there was some kind of special emphasis on ‘experience’ – “I had an ‘experience’ yesterday, which has upset me considerably.” – given the right tone and context, the type of experience may be implied/defined by the word itself. But it seems like a stretch.

  8. Stan says:

    Oisín: Yes, that would work. It doesn’t apply to the case at hand, because something else is intended, but in another context it could be a valid reading. (Welcome back, by the way.)

  9. peter mare says:

    Stan, if you could provide the relative place in where this sentence is written or a few other sentences of keys words which could help me located in the original version, I could tell you what was written in French! I am surprised that no one thought about looking at the French version, but then how many English speakers know another language?

  10. peter mare says:

    Oops! I had no time to read the whole comment section! Okay! I got it.

  11. peter mare says:

    Being completely bilingual and using my double major in linguistics and French literature, it is laughable to see how things are translated. They always try to make things more complicated than it is supposed to. I guess they get paid more if they tweak this or that from another version. We would not want to write exactly what another has! Honestly! A simple:

    “I saw things yesterday that troubled me deeply.”

    or even simpler:

    “I saw something yesterday that troubled me a lot.” (Beaucoup = a lot)

  12. Steeny Lou says:

    One of the doctors for whom I transcribe is notorious for dictating commas anywhere he pleases. I sometimes threaten, in my mind, to type his report exactly as he says it, complete with errant commas. If and when I do, maybe I will come here and post it just for laughs — minus patient identifying information, of course.

    • Stan says:

      Steeny Lou: Commas can be tricky unless you make it your business to study them. Even professional writers struggle with them sometimes, so I’m not surprised they pose a difficulty to this doctor.

  13. […] written before about a comma(,) which muddles meaning, and a comma with restrictive which. The first was in a newspaper editorial, the second in a de Maupassant translation; both were […]

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