Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Navigate / search

How to craft a character and plot that fit together seamlessly

Character and plot in a piece of fiction are inseparable. So if you are planning to write a novel you will need to find not only a plot but also the sort of characters that will suit that plot.

So what exactly is a plot? In simple words a plot (or storyline) is a literary term which outlines the series of events that constitutes a particular story. But that is by no means the full story. A plot is far more than merely a starting point and a logical conclusion. If that was all it involved it would be very boring.

Perhaps a fuller description is: a sequence of events determined by the actions and reactions of the characters; these actions and reactions create a chain of causes and effects; and how these events and the various characters relate to one another.

Right, so that sounds fine. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each element of a plot must come from something in an earlier part of the story. So you need to create sufficient dramatic impetus to carry readers through to the end of the story by creating a series of mini-climaxes that builds up to the main climax. Or, in other words, you get your hero into trouble and keep him there until the resolution in the final chapter.

A plot pulls together all the characters, settings and voice with a major dramatic and pressing question. This question is usually fairly straightforward and is answered by the end of the story.

Consider the character and plot in the following novels and see what questions the reader wants answered:

• In Pride and Prejudice, the question posed by Jane Austen is whether the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet will accept the proud Mr Darcy
• The question in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is whether Robert Jordan will escape his apparent fate by surviving his military mission in the Spanish Civil war
• In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s dark novel of revenge, the reader wonders if Heathcliff will ever find inner peace after the death of his beloved Catherine
• In J.D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye we wonder if the adolescent Holden Caulfield will ever grow up and find his true identity
• In Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd the question is whether Gabriel Oak will finally win his true love, Bathsheba
• In Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands will Davies and Carruthers get to the bottom of the Kaiser’s plot to invade Britain and thwart the intrigues of the renegade former English naval officer?

Look at any well-written novel and you will see that the main reason we keep reading is because of the suspense the major dramatic question creates. We can’t wait to find out the answer. This is called the denouement, the part where all is revealed.

But let’s leave the plot for the moment, although we agree that character and plot are intertwined, and move on to characterisation.

In fictional narrative writing the literary element known as characterisation deals with the art of creating characters. Characterisation may be portrayed by means of a description of the characters as well as through their actions, speech, thoughts and interaction with other characters.

Characters lead the readers through the story, helping them understand plots and themes. Characterisation allows the reader to empathise with the protagonist and the secondary characters by bringing them to life. Dialogue is a very important part of characterisation because it allows the reader to gain a better insight into their thought processes. It also helps to move the story along.

‘Character’ includes moral qualities and ethical standards or principles – or lack thereof – and is a combination of all the features and traits that form a particular character’s nature or personality.Writers make use of different types of characters to fulfil the different roles in the story.

Here are examples of how character and plot go together:

• Characters are described as either dynamic (those who undergo a developmental change in the story) or static (those who remain the same).
• Dynamic and static characters must not be confused with flat (two-dimensional) or round (complex personality) characters.
• Major (or central) characters are essential in that the plot revolves around them.
• Minor characters complement the major characters and help move events forward.
• The protagonist is the central person in a story. He/she need not necessarily have admirable qualities (e.g. an anti-hero).
• A character who represents a particular class or group of people is known as a type. Allied to this is the stereotypical stock character. Literature is full of them: the wicked schemer Iago in Othello; the miser Scrooge in A Christmas Carol; or even the absent-minded genius Professor Calculus in the Tintin comic series.
Note that the above characteristics are not necessarily mutually exclusive and many of them may be combined at the same time.

To sum up, it doesn’t matter how good your plot is if your characterisation is poor. So make sure character and plot fit together like a hand in a glove.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

A book editor will get right inside your book and make it shine.

A book editor will get right inside your book, look at it from every angle and make it shine. Another thing is that a book editor is essential simply because no publisher or printer will touch a manuscript unless it has been carefully checked. That is the bottom line.

But another way of looking at it is that people are generally blind to their own shortcomings and failings, although these same people are usually pretty quick to see the exact same defects in others. Most likely this can be attributed to human nature.

Now it’s a fact of life that many authors, no doubt also being human, are not immune to this trait. They often judge their writing less harshly than it deserves, and with less of a critical eye. They are inclined to be subjective, and refuse to accept that their manuscript is crying out for some serious editing – as any impartial, less subjective person can see. Few authors are their own harshest critics – especially first-time authors. Yet no manuscript exists that cannot be improved, however good it may be.

A book editor steps in to create order in a book

That is where the book editor steps in to create order out of potential chaos. Professional book editors have usually spent many years – often many decades – honing their skills. They know what to do and what to look for in a manuscript, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to rectify an author’s mistakes. Having a second pair of eyes, as it were, they offer a different and unbiased perspective and can quickly spot what the author has missed, or ambiguities and repetitions that the author is completely unaware of.

Remember, there is no manuscript that cannot be improved – no matter how good it is. And first-time authors are advised to swallow their pride and cultivate a good working relationship with his or her book editor. It’s worth it – for the sake of the book.

So if you have written a book and need a book editor to take a look at it you can contact John and he will be only to happy to give you a quote.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

Creative writing ideas to get new authors started

Creative writing is where you express thoughts, feelings and emotions rather than convey information. So creative writing would be for a novel, poem or short story and, at the same time, you would also use descriptive writing to describe people, places, scenes or objects in such a way as to form a picture in the reader’s mind.

For creative writing you need to come up with ideas to write about and this is what we are going to tackle here.

Ideas are everywhere. You may be inspired by a childhood memory or something that is going on in your life at the present time. Imagination and inspiration are the key factors when you need to come up with ideas for creative writing, but there are some tricks and tools that you can use as well.

I am going to call this stage of the writing process the invention stage and it usually involves you asking yourself many questions and employing a whole lot of strategies before you can get started with the writing process.

The creative writing process strategies:

•Read as many books as you can in your chosen genre e.g. fiction or non-fiction, poetry, short story, novel, children’s books etc. For an in-depth look at the different genres have a look at Wikipedia
•Gather as many ideas, good and bad, as you can
•Keep adding to your list as ideas pop into your mind (use a notebook)
•Take in what is going on around you all the time and listen for lines of dialogue
•Just get going, write and write some more
•Don’t worry about the quality of the work you produce at first
•Write every day, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes
•Use the writing prompts that you will find on our resources page
•Do various exercises such as writing a series of very short works starting with a particular phrase or using only words that don’t have the letter ‘e’ in them
•From the word go you need to ask questions
•These questions lead to more questions
•Ask questions until you can’t think of any more.

By now you should have quite a lot of ideas to work with and it would be good to think about what main elements should be included in your work.

The main elements in creative writing

These are the main practical elements that you need to take into account when you start writing:


So if you are feeling a bit more inspired now you can get busy with some creative writing and see where that takes you.

Tricia DorringtonTricia Dorrington (9)

Tricia has been writing content for websites for many years and, as the editor of this site, attends to the posting of all content, together with the online marketing of the business.

Writing process series to help new and experienced writers find their own writing process.

The writing process is different for every writer and established writers will certainly have a process that they can follow with ease. New writers, however, have to develop a writing process from scratch and this can sometimes be very difficult.

It can be a problem to get started whether you are writing a blog post for your website, a short story or a full length book. Usually an inexperienced writer will simply put the job of getting started off to the next day and, in the end, the work will never be written.

Even an experienced writer can struggle when changing formats and find that they just don’t know where to begin. For instance someone who has written many books, may have a problem writing a blog post for the website to promote his work and so the process of trial and error begins, in order to find your own writing process.

Before starting the writing process arm yourself with information:

• What style of writing is required for the task at hand
• Do I need any other knowledge such as search engine optimization for a website or resources that will assist me with my writing
• Come up with ideas for the subject or plot
Add to your idea
• Research your subject

Now start the writing process:

• Start your first draft
• Write your article, short story or book.
• Revise and polish
• Edit you first draft
• Employ an editor
• Publish

Sounds easy but we all know that it is not that simple. A lack of self-belief, failure to come up with an idea and writer’s block are just a few of the problems that can stand in your way and prevent you from writing your first work.

Unfortunately there is no ‘one fits all’ solution and you need to be patient with yourself until you come up with a winning formula. In this series of articles we will attempt to point you in the right direction so that you can find your own writing process. The ‘we’ that I am referring to are John and Trish of J&T Dorrington.

I have been writing copy for websites for years and can complete an article in under an hour. I didn’t believe that I could write a book until I did a course on writing children’s picture books. The course advised that you find your pictures first and the book would follow. I followed this advice and my children’s picture book was produced soon after that.

John has written books and is a wonderful editor, but he nearly freaked when I told him that he had to write articles for this website. He is still struggling with the concept but, with my expert guidance, he is getting there.

So join us on this journey to find your writing process and let’s see whether we can make an author out of you.

Tricia DorringtonTricia Dorrington (9)

Tricia has been writing content for websites for many years and, as the editor of this site, attends to the posting of all content, together with the online marketing of the business.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Teacher teaching English as a Foreign Language
Teacher teaching English as a Foreign Language

When teaching English as a Foreign Language, you should always remember that you’re teaching students for whom English is not their first language. They’re probably not interested in becoming scholars of Shakespeare and most likely, at least initially, just want to be able to order a meal in a restaurant. For many of these students English could very well be their third or fourth language. I remember editing a Nigerian post-grad university student’s Master’s thesis – and English was his fifth language! So yes, some students may be needing to learn English in order to attend university or college, but many will really just want to be able to learn conversational English so that they can make themselves understood reasonably well.

When teaching English as a Foreign Language to beginners, you’ll probably find that most students have had at least some contact with the language through television, movies or the Internet. It is not often that a teacher comes across absolute beginners, unless they’re very young children and their family speaks no English. These youngsters have nothing, or very little, to build on, and their teacher must begin teaching the language virtually from scratch.

So, in this situation, it is best to assume no knowledge of the language at all, and start with the basics. This should be done in a fun and interactive way, allowing the student’s time to gain their confidence.

Preparation and Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Good planning and preparation is essential for all lessons, but especially the first lesson with a new group of students. Take time to allow the students to feel relaxed in their new environment, making sure that you encourage everyone to participate, but taking it slowly with the obviously shy students.

Having a suitably laid-out classroom, with video and screen facilities, and a large board for writing, is important. In this regard, seating arrangements should be carefully worked out so that you’re visible to all students. Classroom arrangements and seating plans are always important, but especially so with young children.

Prepare packs of word cards that are to be handed out and can quickly be held up for all to see. These include words such as ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, and different colours, pictures of common objects (perhaps including some animals), letters of the alphabet and numbers from 1 to 10.

Regarding the lesson, the teacher should have a carefully worked-out lesson plan and a clear purpose – and don’t forget a contingency plan in case things go wrong.

Work out appropriate and effective learning strategies. There are several different learning techniques, but the best is probably the Direct Method, which places emphasis on students’ language and participation – rather than grammar – with certain aspects of the Communicative Language Teaching method. The latter technique involves students’ communicating functions such as expressing feelings, making a request, declining an offer or describing something.

English as a Foreign Language – First Lessons

When the first class begins, start with the basics – a simple greeting combined with gestures, smiles, and exaggerated body language including nods or shakes of the head.   One could start with something like ‘Hello, I am John’ (said with much smiling, gesturing and pointing.) ‘What is your name?’ Use your imagination and try to be inventive.

That’s a good beginning, and you can carry on from there. In future lessons you can work through the alphabet, colours and numbers from 1 to 10. As they progress, proceed simply, with nouns (man, woman, car, tree etc.) then move on to simple verbs (run, walk, jump, swim).

Use gestures and pictures to aid understanding.  Then carry on with simple phrases (‘Hello, how are you? I am from … etc.’). Slowly work up to longer sentences, and easy sentence constructions. Depending on what progress you are making, you can slowly build up to tenses. Unfortunately, English has no fewer than twelve of them!

In time you will be able to work up to adjectives, articles and punctuation. Then you can attempt to correct errors in pronunciation, especially difficult sounds, and their spelling – never an easy task!

There is no reason why a classroom shouldn’t be a place where the students not only learn but also have fun. As a teacher you should try to maintain a sense of humour and let the students have fun when learning – but be firm and always remember that you are the boss. If you get the process right, you will have many students lining up to be taught English as a Foreign Language – which, by the way, is shortened to TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language or ESL (English as a second Language).

If you would like to do a course teaching English as a Foreign Language then a  TEFL course is the way to go.


The difference between while and whilst

If you are uncertain whether to use while or whilst, it is always preferable to use while.

In the course of my work I read dozens of dissertations written by post-graduate students from countries far to the north of South Africa such as Malawi, Gabon, Cameroon and Nigeria. None of these students is a first-language English speaker and I have noticed that without exception they use the word whilst – never while – and this made me wonder about these two words. I have always regarded whilst as archaic, pompous, too formal and, at best, rather quaint, but none of these young men and women is any of these things.

So what is the difference? Although in British English both spellings are correct, whilst is becoming less common than it used to be – except among the educated people of Africa, apparently. American English uses while for all forms of the word. And it is advisable never to use whilst when speaking.

Not always do while and whilst mean precisely the same thing. When used as a noun while (from the Old English hwil) means ‘a period of time, usually short’ e.g. wait here for a while.

It can also be used as a verb e.g. to while away the time or as a preposition (meaning ‘until’) although this usage is archaic. It is important to note that whilst cannot be used either as a noun or a verb.

It is as a conjunction, however, that they have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably. Here they mean ‘during the time that’ e.g. watch the kettle while I leave the kitchen. Other meanings include ‘whereas’ and ‘although’ e.g. a qualified mechanic can repair the engine, while I haven’t a clue. Their use as a conjunction dates back to the 1500s.

If you are uncertain whether to use while or whilst, remember that it is always preferable to use while.

Distinction between dependant and dependent.

Is it necessary to make a distinction between dependant and dependent?

This is confusing to say the least! From time to time I have to think twice before deciding whether to use the word dependant or dependent. I am never quite sure. It’s all right for Americans because they don’t make such a distinction and always use dependent.

In British English, however, dependant is the noun (someone, such as a child, who depends on another, especially for financial support) and dependent the adjective (e.g. dependent on drugs).
For those who are interested, the word has its roots in Latin (de = down, and pendeo, pependi = to hang from, to be suspended). The pendulum of a clock has similar origins.

Do you think American English loses something by not making this distinction between dependant and dependent? Or is it unnecessary to make such a distinction in the first place?

Ordnance and ordinance: what’s the difference?

Ordnance and ordinance: what’s the difference?

If you were imprudent enough to discharge government ordnance in the city centre, the chances are that you would fall foul of some government ordinance. That’s hardly surprising. Yet most right-minded people would probably come to the same conclusion without fully understanding or even caring about the difference. So what is the difference?

An ordinance is a government law or decree, usually at municipal level, whereas ordnance refers to military materials, mainly weapons and ammunition.

Both words have the same Latin root (to arrange or set in order) and entered our language via Middle English, after which they split and took on different meanings and spelling.

So one little letter can make a big difference.

Presume and Assume: is there a difference?

Presume and Assume, there is a subtle difference.

When the celebrated Victorian explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone went ‘missing’ in the wilds of Africa for over six years the journalist-cum-adventurer Sir Henry Morton Stanley set out to find him. In November 1871 he eventually found Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and legend has it that Stanley greeted him with the words “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.”

Now why did Stanley say ‘presume’ and not ‘assume’? Is there a difference? The short answer is yes there is – a subtle one.

In common usage both mean to suppose or to take something as a given, and may be used interchangeably.  The difference is merely one of degree. Assume is somewhat weaker or less authoritative in meaning than presume. When a speaker is unsure of his facts he makes an assumption but when he is reasonably sure of them he makes a presumption.

So Stanley was technically quite correct. Given the circumstances, it was highly unlikely that the man beside the waters of Lake Tanganyika was anyone other than Dr Livingstone, so saying presume and not assume was correct.


Where does the word bankrupt come from?

The other day I was paging through my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable when the book happened to open at the word bankrupt. For no particular reason I read what was written.

I already knew that bankrupt, like so many English words, had a Latin root, or at least part of it had a Latin root – ruptus, the past participle of rumpere, to break. The other part, banca, is an Old Italian word meaning ‘bench’, and naturally became the modern bank. Old Norse and Old English had similar words. But what I didn’t know was that the modern English word came from the Old Italian bancarotta.

If you enjoy delving into the etymology of words you will find this quite interesting, but what I read in Brewer’s Dictionary about how the word came about was more interesting still.

Bancarotta literally means ‘broken bench’. The word derives from the centuries-old Italian custom whereby an insolvent moneylender or merchant suffered the ignominy of having his table or bench broken up by the other merchants. This symbolized that he was no longer welcome to carry on trading in the market place. Simple but effective.

So there we have it. The word bankrupt has an Old Italian root but let’s hope that you never suffer the consequences of this word!


Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor and businessman.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

Is it Plain sailing or plane sailing?

Is it Plain or plane sailing? We have all heard the expression plain sailing. We have probably used it ourselves plenty of times. But some of us aren’t too sure how to spell the word plain when writing or typing the expression because we sometimes see it in print as plane sailing. So is it spelt -ain or -ane?

The simple answer is that both spellings are acceptable, although plain has in recent times gained acceptance.

So what’s the difference between plain sailing and plane sailing? Well, apart from the spelling, there is no difference. Plain sailing has become a somewhat informal expression covering any activity that is easy or straightforward. Originally it was a nautical expression meaning to navigate in a clear or unobstructed expanse of sea. It is easy to see how it acquired its present figurative meaning.

Technically and historically plain sailing should be written as plane sailing, which used to be a fairly simple method of determining a ship’s position. It was based on the use of flat or ‘plane’ charts which were drawn up on the assumption that the earth was flat – although by then navigators knew it was not – and that the ship was sailing on a plane surface, i.e. not on a spherical surface. This naturally made it easier for the sailors of old to determine the ship’s approximate course and distance travelled during relatively short sea voyages.

The use of these ‘plane’ charts was how the term originated.

Before the standardisation of spelling in the seventeenth century plain and plane were used interchangeably. Plain happened to be the spelling first used in print and this became the norm.

But if you like being pedantic, which I do, write it as plane sailing.


T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Thomas Stearns Eliot OM, usually known as T. S. Eliot, was an essayist, publisher, playwright, and literary and social critic.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



Is the Oxford comma necessary?

Opinions differ on whether the Oxford comma is necessary.

In Standard English (including South African English) it is permissible to use a comma directly before a coordinating conjunction in a series of (usually) nouns? At school we were taught it was not permissible.

For example, may one write, ‘I saw John, Jack, Mary, and Sue’? Is the comma between the words ‘Mary’ and ‘and’ necessary?

Some people would say yes; others would say no. My gut feeling is to say no, but maybe I’m merely a product of my sheltered upbringing. The trend in American English is to accept its use; less so for British English. I am not too sure about its acceptance in South African English. All I can be sure of is that I would never use it.
What do you think?

Incidentally, the term ‘Oxford comma’ came into prominent use when high-spirited students at Columbia University formed a group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. This led to the writing of a humorous song whose message, according to Wikipedia, was more about not caring about anything than the Oxford comma. Another name is Harvard comma, although it is properly called a serial or series comma.


C. J. Cherryh
C. J. Cherryh

C. J. Cherryh (1 September 1942)

Carolyn Janice Cherry, better known by the pen name C. J. Cherryh, is an American writer of speculative fiction.

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

What is a fragmented sentence?

A fragmented sentence is a linguistic expression. It denotes a word or phrase which stands by itself although, strictly speaking, it doesn’t make up a complete sentence. A fragmented sentence is incomplete because it lacks the elements of a complete sentence.

A complete sentence comprises three components:

• a subject
• a verb
• a complete thought.

In other words, a complete sentence can stand alone and still make sense. A fragmented sentence, on the other hand, is not a complete sentence – although it does make sense, but only if taken within its context.

Consider the following sentences:

• Can we win the game on Saturday? Absolutely!
• Can we win the game on Saturday? Probably not.
• We must win the game on Saturday. But how?

In the sentences above, the words in italics are the dependent or fragmented sentences. On their own they are meaningless but when read in conjunction with what appears in front of them they take on a meaning. Therefore what is left unsaid is implied.

Use fragmented sentences sparingly

Fragmented sentences are very common in ordinary speech – listen to any normal conversation – and we often come across them in newspapers and advertisements. They can be very short, consisting of no more than one or two words.
In narrative writing fragmented sentences should be used sparingly, and if used judiciously they can add variety and vibrancy. But don’t overdo them or your writing will appear disjointed and disorganised.

Correcting a fragmented sentence

It is easy to correct a fragmented sentence, if you feel it necessary to do so. The simplest way is simply to add a comma. This will connect the dependent clause (the fragmented sentence) to the main sentence. If the sentence then becomes too long or unwieldy, create a second independent sentence which can also stand alone.

Fragmented sentences have a necessary place in narrative writing, especially where the author is replicating direct speech.


E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow (6 January 1931)

Edgar Lawrence “E. L.” Doctorow is an American author. He is known internationally for his unique works of historical fiction.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History

Defining clauses define the noun

Defining clauses introduce additional information to a sentence by defining the noun. That is why they are called defining clauses.

Take a look at this sentence: This is the house that Jack built.
The defining clause is that Jack built. It defines the house.

Defining clauses belong to the category subordinate relative clauses.

There are two kinds of subordinate relative clauses:

• Defining clauses. These are usually introduced by that, but also by which or who.
• Non-defining clauses. These are descriptive and provide information about someone or something, but this information doesn’t exactly define what is being written about. Without them the sentence still makes sense and is grammatically correct. They are introduced by relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which) which refer to a noun that appears earlier in the sentence e.g. My brother, who is older than me, owns a sports car. Note that they are never introduced by the word that. Commas (or parentheses) are used to distinguish non-defining clauses from the rest of the sentence.

Difference between defining clauses and non-defining clauses

These sentences highlight the difference between defining clauses and non-defining clauses:

(a) I dislike travelling in buses that are dirty.
(b) I dislike travelling in buses, which are dirty.

Sentence (a) means that I dislike travelling in dirty buses, and by implication that I am happy to travel in clean buses. This is an example of a sentence with a defining clause. If the defining clause is omitted, the basic meaning of the sentence would be changed from I dislike travelling in some buses to I dislike travelling in all buses.

Sentence (b) means all buses are dirty and by implication that I would rather use other means of transport.

Sentence (a) is an example of a sentence with a defining clause, and sentence (b) is an example of a describing or non-defining clause. If the describing clause is removed from this sentence the basic sense of it remains the same i.e. I dislike travelling in all buses.

A non-defining or describing clause is normally introduced by a comma. A defining clause is essential to the sentence and cannot be put within commas. It is important to note that it can’t be omitted without eliminating or severely limiting the sense of the sentence.

Defining clauses are usually introduced by that

Defining clauses are usually introduced by that e.g. I live in the house that Jack built.
Here the defining clause is so fundamental that if it were to be omitted, the sentence would be incomplete and confusing. It defines the house as being the only house built by Jack.

In the sentence I live in a house, which Jack built the meaning is that Jack has possibly built several houses and I live in one of them. This is an example of a non-defining (or describing) subordinate clause.

Points to remember

Who and which may also be used to introduce defining clauses but that is almost always preferred.
That is used to introduce defining clauses only.
That always defines rather than merely describes.
• Defining clauses must not be marked off with commas.
Who, and sometimes that, refers to people, but that and which refer to things.

Defining clauses are usually introduced by the word that, and, unlike non-defining clauses, are essential to the meaning of the sentence.


Tana French
Tana French

Tana French (1973)

Tana French is an Irish novelist and theatrical actress.

“Don’t get discouraged if you’re hammering away at a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, and it keeps coming out wrong. You’re allowed to get it wrong, as many times as you need to; you only need to get it right once.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History