I would like to ask about the grammaticality of a 'that' relative clause modifying a noun phrase that begins with a possessive pronoun. Please consider these examples:

  • Please send in your technician that I can talk to.

  • They scrapped our project that had taken us so much effort.

From a somewhat prescriptive standpoint (I'm trying to quit...), I would like to ask whether this construction might require the 'that' pronoun to be replaced with the stronger alternatives, 'which' or 'who', also preceded by a comma.

  • Please send in your technician, who I can talk to.

  • They scrapped our project, which had taken us so much effort.

Alternatively, beginning the noun phrases with an indefinite article would then allow the 'that' relative clause.

  • Please send in a technician that I can talk to.

  • They scrapped a project that had taken us so much effort.

I would really appreciate knowing your views on this--particularly on the ungrammaticality I see in the first examples.

Thank you very much.

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Jason Bassford, Chenmunka, user240918, jimm101 Jan 29 at 20:03

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    I think your question may fundamentally be about the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses. If the "determiner" is your rather than an article (a or the), it's more likely to be non-restrictive (you only have one technician, and I know I can talk to him - so I'm not asking you to identify and dispatch that one specific guy from your team of technicians). – FumbleFingers Jan 25 at 17:30
  • Thank you! That shined a great light. I personally think that the first two examples are altogether ungrammatical. And based on your input, it seems that this ungrammaticality arises from a clash between a non-restrictive meaning and a restrictive form. – Pablo Bernabeu Jan 25 at 17:45
  • 1
    I don't know all the details about such matters. You might find this comment to an earlier ELU question useful (ditto the even earlier question it was closed as a duplicate of). If you think either of those earlier questions (or any others you might find by searching the site) resolves your problem, please consider pointing it out in a comment. Duplicates are always welcome if we can identify them as such (helps future visitors find what they're looking for). – FumbleFingers Jan 25 at 18:08
  • Thank you! This solved it. I think this sentence sums it up: 'In non-restrictive relative clauses, that MAY NOT be used.' – Pablo Bernabeu Jan 25 at 18:20
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    Thank you! I've now voted to close your question as a duplicate - I can't cite the actual Question with the comment you found useful, because there are no "formal" Answers on that one. But there's always a chance some future visitor will end up finding your question first, then clicking through my comment link to the one with professor Lawler's comment. And if that doesn't help they can go further an find the Should you use “who” or “that” when talking about multiple people doing something? question. To my mind, by definition it must be a dup if an earlier answer satisfies you. – FumbleFingers Jan 25 at 18:28

Whether your examples are acceptable arguably depends on the context.

Let me concentrate on the second example:

[2] ?They scrapped our project that had taken us so much effort.

The issue isn't really a restrictive vs nonrestrictive relative, but rather **integrated* vs non-integrated relative. And while integrated relatives are usually restrictive, they aren't always; this is what the examples in [18] and [19] show (see below).

(Also note that the version with the definite article is definitely acceptable: They scrapped the project that had taken us so much effort.)

While [2] is of uncertain acceptability, the following very similar example is perfectly acceptable:

[3] They scrapped our project that had generated so many losses.

Here the relative clause does not serve to restrict anything. Instead, the reason it is integrated is that it is an essential part of the reason why the project was scrapped.

In fact, I am pretty sure there could be contexts in which [2] would be acceptable. What would be required is that our taking so much effort is somehow essentially connected to why the project was scrapped.


Consider the following passages from CGEL:

[16]  They only take in overseas students who they think have lots of money.
(The people referred to by they do not take in all overseas students, but only those from the subset they believe to have lots of money)

[17]  They only take in overseas students, who they think have lots of money.
(This time the relative clause does not pick out a subset of overseas students, but makes an assertion about overseas students in general.)

Contrasts like these provide the basis for the traditional classification of relative clauses as 'restrictive' ([16]) and 'non-restrictive' ([17]). We prefer to distinguish the two classes as integrated vs supplementary because there are many places where the contrast is not a matter of whether or not the relative clause expresses a distinguishing property.

[18]  The father who had planned my life to the point of my unsought arrival in Brighton
         took it for granted that in the last three weeks of his legal guardianship I would still act as he

The narrator is three weeks short of eighteen and is saying that his father took it for granted that during those three weeks he would continue to do as his father directed. The relative clause here belongs to our integrated class: it cannot be omitted or spoken on a separate intonation contour and allows that as an alternant of who (albeit somewhat less favoured). Yet it does not serve to distinguish this father from other fathers of the narrator: he has only one father. The reason for presenting the content of the relative clause as an integral part of the message is not, therefore, that it expresses a distinguishing property but that it explains why the father took it for granted that the son would do as he was told.

Compare similarly:

[19]  i  He sounded like the clergyman he was.
        ii  She had two sons she could rely on for help, and hence was not unduly worried.

Both underlined clauses are bare relatives and hence necessarily integrated. But we do not understand he was in [i] as distinguishing one clergyman from another: it conveys that he was a clergyman, and an obvious reason for presenting this as an integral part of the message is that sounding like a clergyman when you are one is significantly different from sounding like a clergyman when you are not. In [ii] it could be that she had more than two sons (in which case the relative would be serving a distinguishing role), but an at least equally likely context is one where she had only two sons. In this context the property expressed in the relative clause does not distinguish these sons from other sons she has, but is an essential part of the reason for her not being unduly worried.

  • Thanks a lot. This integration distinction seems spot-on. – Pablo Bernabeu Jan 25 at 21:29
  • @PabloBernabeu No problem! – linguisticturn Jan 25 at 22:55

I gather that it is ungrammatical indeed. Thanks to @FumbleFingers for providing definitive references in comments.

The issue is down to (non-)restrictiveness. Restrictive relative clauses are necessary to identify the specific referent, whereas non-restrictive ones just add a note about a unique referent. According to this source,

'In non-restrictive relative clauses, that MAY NOT be used.'

In the first two examples, the possessive pronouns are implying that there is a uniquely identifiable referent, as @FumbleFingers suggested. This would then require a non-restrictive relative clause. So, the problem with the first two examples seems to be the use of a restrictive form for a non-restrictive meaning.

  • 1
    I mostly agree. One wrinkle here is that some examples could use a possessive pronoun but still allow a restrictive relative clause to be used. The restrictive clause would be necessary to distinguish between several possibilities. So in this sentence ("They scrapped our project that had taken us so much effort"), if we have several projects going on, "that had taken us so much effort" would distinguish our high-cost project from other projects. That would be less likely (as Fumble Fingers notes) but grammatical. – TaliesinMerlin Jan 25 at 19:23
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    Thanks! That's a great nuance. In my eyes and ears, the first two constructions still sound ungrammatical and uncommon (especially in spoken language), regardless of the meaning. But I may well be biased by my first language. – Pablo Bernabeu Jan 25 at 19:33
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    But your first two examples are not of nonrestrictive relative clauses. They are restrictive relative clauses. It's not the case that a possessive pronoun necessitates something nonrestrictive, only that it's more likely. If you have multiple technicians, and I'm only able to communicate with one of them, then the restrictive use would be both appropriate and required. Which one am I talking about? Specifically, the only one of yours that I can talk to. Your first two sentences are both grammatical—just uncommonly phrased. – Jason Bassford Jan 25 at 22:18
  • @JasonBassford Thanks. I can see those alternative possibilities now. – Pablo Bernabeu Jan 25 at 23:21

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