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In that discomfort, breathing quicklime and tar, no one could see very well how from the bowels of the earth there was rising not only the largest house in the town, but the most hospitable and cool house that had ever existed in the region of the swamp.
(One Hundred Years of Solitude, tr. by Gregory Rabassa)

The that-clause is a complement providing the criterion for ‘the largest’ and ‘the most’, isn’t it? (It seems like the ‘indirect complement’ that is said in ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.')

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    I really do not understand what you are asking. Simplify your sentence: “No one could see that there was rising not only X but also Y.” And then go from there. X and Y are the two things that are rising. The that is describing the [largest and the most hospital and the most cool (=coolest)] house which had every existed. It seems quite simple when you boil it down like that, and I cannot see where you are confused or what you are confused about. What are you really asking here? Try rewriting that passage into several short sentences for clarity. – tchrist Aug 3 '13 at 2:40
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    @tchrist: Seems pretty clear to me. OP is asking what the final "that-clause" refers to. He's not asking whether that could be replaced by which. But it is complicated by the fact that the passage says cool because it's elided from most cool. That's a "hypothetical" second element qualified by the final clause, because it wouldn't make sense to refer to the cool house that had ever existed. – FumbleFingers Aug 3 '13 at 3:10
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No, the that-clause has no grammatical relationship with the largest. It's quite possible there was previously a larger house in the town (that's just been demolished, perhaps).

What the final clause modifies is specifically the word most, but it's complicated by the fact that strictly speaking there's a deleted second instance (the most hospitable and [the most] cool house). They're both being modified, even though one isn't actually there any more.

It's perfectly possible to describe something with just a superlative. For example,...

She was the sweetest girl.

...which can be modified it with a "that-clause"...

She was the sweetest girl that I had ever known.

That's all that's happening in OP's example. Without the qualification, the default meaning would be the most hospitable [and coolest] house ever, anywhere.

  • It's not just any that-clause. It's a restrictive relative clause (one can substitute which, but not leave it out, because it's the subject -- this is criterial for relative clauses), and it's part of the superlative construction, so it does have a grammatical relationship with the largest, since it identifies the comparison field of the superlative. Oh, and the answer to the question is: "No, this that-clause is not a complement clause; it's a relative clause." – John Lawler Aug 3 '13 at 16:25
  • @John: I don't quite follow that. Are you saying the final restrictive relative clause directly relates to/qualifies the largest? I can't see that. It seems to me the largest and the most hospitable and cool are only interelated by virtue of the fact that they both refer to the same house. But per my answer, it might not be the largest house that's ever been there - I just read it as saying it's the largest house there right now. – FumbleFingers Aug 3 '13 at 16:48
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    No, I'm saying that the Superlative construction requires some constituent that defines the comparison space. There has to be something, and there are several alternatives: the tallest man in the world uses a preposition phrase; the tallest man (that) I've ever seen uses a relative clause. This is the relative clause. Note: relative clauses are not complement clauses; relative clauses are adjective clauses while complement coffees are noun clauses. Quite different constructions. So calling something a that-clause doesn't identify it. – John Lawler Aug 3 '13 at 18:59
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    @John: That's cleared up a lot for me! I avoided echoing OP's complement because I didn't really understand what it meant in this context (plus I failed miserably to find any useful online definition of an indirect complement). But I can understand "relative clauses are adjective clauses". And armed with better ways of describing things, I now feel reasonably confident in saying that unless there's an explicit relative / adjective (/qualifying?) clause, the "default comparison space" for She was the prettiest girl is in fact ever, anywhere. – FumbleFingers Aug 3 '13 at 19:59
  • Try this and this and this. There's an early chapter in McCawley on complements, because they're so important in English. – John Lawler Aug 3 '13 at 21:50

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