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Modifiers, whether adjectives, adjectival clauses, adverbs, etc, are functioning to restrict the range of reference of the words they are modifying (be it nouns or verbs). Correct? That's the whole point of modifiers: they are restricting the meanings of the words they're attached to.

So can somebody explain how some modifiers can be non-restrictive, and thus need to be set aside by commas? Surely if a modifier is not restricting the meaning of the word(s) it's attached to—the very definition of a modifier—it's not a modifier. Am I just visualizing this all wrong?

I don't understand the reasoning that the non-restrictive is just not essential for the rest of the sentence to make sense, which is the usual answer I receive when I search for an answer to this Q online.

If anybody could point me in the right direction, I'd much appreciate it.

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Consider these two examples:

  1. The funny man ate, but the serious man didn't.
  2. The funny, happy, lovely man ate.

In the context of uttering (1), there are two men that need to be differentiated. So we need the modifier to help us decide the reference; 'funny' is used to determine which man ate. The modifiers are being used in a restrictive way.

We can imagine a context of uttering (2) where there is only one salient man under discussion. In such a context, we don't need the modifiers 'funny', 'happy', or 'lovely' to help us determine reference. They merely serve to provide some extra descriptive information. These are being used in a non-restrictive way.

I also think this shows that not all non-restrictive modifiers need to appear after the nouns (or whatever) they modify and be separated off with commas.

Here is the Wiki on restrictiveness. The first two paragraphs explain the differences nicely, with examples.

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The noun and any modifiers in a noun phrase are all predicated of the referent(s). Any individual of which all these predicates hold true is included in the reference of the noun phrase. If, when you remove one of the modifiers, the set of individuals referred to is the same, that modifier was non-restrictive.

So it is not required of a modifier that it restrict the reference -- only that it is truly predicated of any referents.

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    Right. So the basic premise ("that's the whole point of modifiers") is incorrect. Other names for "non-restrictive" include "supplementary" and "parenthetical"; they include information that is felt to be relevant, but is not needed to identify the NP it modifies. My son who is a dentist is coming to dinner tonight invites the inference that the speaker has another son who is not a dentist, whereas My son, who is a dentist, is coming to dinner tonight merely informs the addressee that tonight's guest is a dentist (for whatever purpose). – John Lawler Sep 11 '15 at 18:54

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