2

The men at the shop, two of whom John knows, are helpful.

Is the relative clause nonrestrictive or restrictive? Or ambiguous? (For written English)

(1) If it is nonrestrictive, the interpretation should be "The men are helpful and John knows two of them."

(2) If it is restrictive, the interpretation should be "Only two men are helpful, whom John knows, among the men at the shop."

If it is the first one, how can the sentence be made for the second interpretation? (Using a restrictive relative clause.)

  • Welcome to the site! Interesting sentence, not so easy to parse. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jul 26 '18 at 4:25
  • @Cerberus Please see my answer. – Kris Jul 26 '18 at 6:48
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Your (1) is correct and makes sense, which proves that the sentence can reasonably be interpreted as having a non-restrictive relative clause.

I'm afraid your (2) is not correct. A correct restrictive interpretation would go thus:

Only those men in the shop of whom John knows two are helpful (those men of whom John knows a different number are not helpful).

What you did was take the word two out of the relative clause and attach it to the subject, and you left the remainder of the relative clause as a non-restrictive clause (whom John knows). But what you should have done is attach the entire relative clause to the subject; you probably couldn't bring yourself to do that because doing so sounds completely unnatural in this sentence (as you can see in my transformation above), not to mention illogical. Hence reading it as a restrictive relative clause does not seem possible.

So it can clearly only be interpreted as a non-restrictive clause.

P.S. This may appear like an appositive, but it is not. I'll copy-paste my comment to Jason here:

At first, I was going to read it as an appositive (following conventional terminology) as well. But then it dawned on me that this isn't possible: the external head of the two of whom... clause isn't two, but the relative pronoun. It only appears like a head because the preposition of and the internal head two come before the relative pronoun: but they are both internal to the relative clause. It becomes clear when you move two back: of whom John knew two. That is clearly the same construction, and not it easily read as all part of the relative clause. Appositive would be like, two of them known to John.

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Your own two interpretations are actually the opposite of what you're calling them. The first version without the commas are restrictive, while the second version with the commas is nonrestrictive.

The original sentence is a nonessential appositive. You can tell because of the parenthetical commas.

Without the parenthetical information, it would read:

The men at the shop are helpful.

The sentence can be understood without the extraneous information that John knows two of them.

To turn it into an essential appositive, the commas would need to be removed and the sentence slightly rephrased (which would also change its meaning):

The two men at the shop who John knows are helpful.

Here, it's specifically talking about the two men—not just men in general who happen to include those two.

Update: Alternatively, you can alter the sentence even more in order to keep the same meaning—but it would also remove its appositive nature:

Among the all-helpful men at the shop are two whom John knows.


From the Purdue Online Writing Lab:

An appositive is a noun or pronoun — often with modifiers — set beside another noun or pronoun to explain or identify it.

Further:

Here are some examples.

      The popular U.S. president John Kennedy was known for his eloquent and inspirational speeches.

Here we do not put commas around the appositive because it is essential information. Without the appositive, the sentence would be, "The popular U.S. president was known for his eloquent and inspirational speeches." We wouldn't know who the president is without the appositive.

      John Kennedy, the popular U.S. president, was known for his eloquent and inspirational speeches.

Here we put commas around the appositive because it is not essential information. Without the appositive, the sentence would be, "John Kennedy was known for his eloquent and inspirational speeches." We still know who the subject of the sentence is without the appositive.


Update: This is based on the confusion between the words used to describe the sentences in this question.

I have used nonessential appositive and essential appositive.

Another answer has used non-restrictive relative clause and (I'll assume, although it is not explicitly given) restrictive relative clause.

Here is an excerpt from an article by Tim Stowell called "Appositive and Parenthetical Relative Clauses" (direct link to a PDF).

Appositive relative clauses differ from restrictive relative clauses in a number of ways. The fundamental distinction is semantically based: an appositive relative like that in (1a) conveys an independent assertion about the referent of its associated head; the reference of the head is established independently of the appositive relative. In contrast, a restrictive relative like that in (1b) is interpreted as an intersective predicate modifier, restricting the reference of its head.

(1a) The prince, who was wounded, withdrew from the battle.
(1b) The prince who was wounded withdrew from the battle.

This linguistic article uses yet a different set of terminology: appositive relative clause and restrictive relative clause.

So, now we have three different sets of terminology to refer to the same pair of sentences. But debate around which is the "correct" terminology takes away from the main point.

If you use parenthetical commas, then the enclosed information is extraneous to the sentence; if you don't use parenthetical commas, then all of the information is important to the sentence.

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  • At first, I was going to read it as an appositive as well. But then it dawned on me that this isn't possible: the external head of the two of whom... clause isn't two, but the relative pronoun. It only appears like a head because the preposition of and the internal head two come before the relative pronoun: but they are both internal to the relative clause. It becomes clear when you move two back: of whom John knew two. That is clearly the same construction, and not it easily read as all part of the relative clause. Appositive would be like, two of them known to John. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jul 26 '18 at 4:23
  • @Cerberus You can remove everything inside the commas and the meaning of the sentence remains the same. That makes the parenthetical information nonessential. The difference between two of whom John knows, and John knows two of them, and two of them known to John doesn't change the way in which the extraneous information functions. – Jason Bassford Jul 26 '18 at 4:40
  • Yes, absolutely, it is non-essential. But I would not use the term "appositive" in this sense, because that is normally a (substantive) noun group, not a relative clause (with an external antecedent). See also your own definition from Purdue. But, if you use the term appositive also for adjectival phrases, such as relative clauses, then I agree with you. I see you found an article that uses appositive relative clause: that is clear enough to me, although it is an unconventional use of the term appositive, I think. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jul 26 '18 at 18:24
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It's much simpler than it appears.

The men at the shop, two of whom John knows, are helpful.

Here, ", two of whom John knows," is parenthetical (note the delimiting pair of commas).

Ignoring the parenthetical for parsing,

The men at the shop are helpful.

which should make the meaning clear.

A parenthetical never changes the meaning.

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  • 1
    You've answered the easy bit, even I know the OP's first sentence contains a parenthetical, what about part two of the question? I.e. …how can the sentence be made for the second interpretation? (Using restrictive relative clause) – Mari-Lou A Jul 26 '18 at 6:59
  • Suggestion for the resrictive clause, but with 'who' rather than 'whom', so I don't know if it's helpful -- At the shop, two of the men who John knows are helpful. (There might be more helpful men at the shop, but John only knows 2 of these.) – S Conroy Jul 26 '18 at 19:01

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