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I need help understanding 'restrictive' phrases.

It's well known that non-restrictive phrases are inessential to the meaning of the sentence because they

do not limit the reference of a word or phrase.

But does that mean that all non-restrictive phrases say something that is nonarbitrary? That seems, superficially, to be the exact opposite?


I don't mean to suggest these examples are grammatically correct. I am just trying to show what I mean by 'non-arbitrary'. Neither that all of them are strictly speaking "nonrestrictive phrases", only that they are phrases that are not restrictive.


A simple example:

My sister, Susan, likes shopping.

'Susan' does not limit the meaning of 'sister' in the rest of the sentence, so 'Susan' likewise already has its referent fixed by the rest of the sentence, as well as I suppose context. What it says about my sister is nonarbitrary.

Again:

The first sentence, which I quoted, is from the dictionary.

This non-restrictive phrase does not limit meaning. What it says about the first sentence is nonarbitrary, because the first sentence already has its referent, and the phrase just adds that it was a quote.


In effect I'm asking whether non-restrictive phrases have a non-arbitrary meaning due to the rest of the sentence, despite themselves being inessential to the sentence.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Sep 2 '19 at 23:35
  • If you have more than one sister and you specify the one you are talking about only by using her name then the name becomes a restrictive phrase since it specifies the sister you are talking about. The name can only be nonrestrictive if you specify the sister in some other way. For example "My younger sister, Susan, likes shopping but my other sister, Sarah, would rather play golf" – BoldBen Sep 3 '19 at 3:39
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It depends on what you mean by "nonarbtitrary," for that is not a term of grammar, meaning it is up to interpretation.

On one hand, a non-restrictive relative clause is not completely arbitrary because a restrictive clause always relates to what it modifies, thus non-restrictive clauses being a type of "relative clause." On the other hand, it could be interpreted as arbitrary should it not be otherwise related to what is being discussed.

If I say, for example, "John likes to play in the sun, which is the biggest thing in our solar system," some might say the relative clause is arbitrary since it's got absolutely nothing to do with what John likes, but it does relate to the modified object "sun."

As for your examples:

My sister, Susan, likes shopping.

In the above, "Susan" isn't a restrictive or non-restrictive clause. Susan is an appositive that defines "sister."

'Susan' says something about my sister, and that is her name.

In the above, "and that is her name" is also not a restrictive clause, nor is it, to use your words, a "restrictive phrase." Rather, it is a coordinate clause, thus coordinating with the prior main clause.

The first sentence, I quoted, is from the dictionary.

In the above, "I quoted" is not a restrictive clause, either. In fact, it's ungrammatical. You might be trying to say:

"The first sentence," I quoted, "is from the dictionary."

or trying to say,

"The first sentence, which I quoted, is from the dictionary."

Those are my best guesses, but you might be trying to say something else entirely. Who knows? The second one is the only one that contains a relative clause, but the word "which" is conspicuously missing, so it's unclear what you mean. If this is what you mean, though, "which" does start a relative clause, even a nonrestrictive relative clause, but whether or not it's arbitrary or nonarbitrary would depend on what you mean by those terms, would by all estimation be subjective opinion, and wouldn't have anything to do with English grammar, language, or usage.

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  • is "and that is her name" a parenthetical clause? i'm asking because i also want to know if, in some sense, all parentheses are non-restrictive – concerned Sep 2 '19 at 23:48
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    No, it's a coordinate clause. A coordinate clause is a type of main clause that is introduced by any of the seven coordinating conjunctions (i.e., and, or, nor, for, so, yet, but). Having its own subject-verb and starting with one of the seven coordinating conjunctions, a coordinate clause can stand on its own as a sentence. A relative clause cannot as a relative clause is a subordinate clause and subordinate clauses are always dependent on a main clause. – Benjamin Harman Sep 3 '19 at 0:00
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As @Jason Bassford said in a comment that was moved to chat:

Inessential only refers to the syntax. It doesn't refer to the semantics. Something that is a nonrestrictive clause can still be very important to what's being communicated. Despite the grammar terminology, it can still be essential to the speaker and the listener.

Consider an example of a non-restrictive relative clause:

The escaped prisoner, who was in prison for killing three people with his bare hands, was wearing a uniform stolen from a guard.

The "who" clause can be removed from the sentence without damaging the syntax. We are left with:

The escaped prisoner was wearing a uniform stolen from a guard.

I can rewrite the original sentence, reversing the main and relative clauses:

The escaped prisoner, who was wearing a uniform stolen from a guard, was in prison for killing three people with his bare hands.

And without the non-restrictive relative clause:

The escaped prisoner was in prison for killing three people with his bare hands.

If I write the following, I have a phrase in apposition rather than a non-restrictive relative clause:

The escaped prisoner--a famous serial killer--was wearing a uniform stolen from a guard.

Clearly what the escaped prisoner is wearing and his offenses are critical information, at least to some people. If a non-restrictive relative clause is deleted, the sentence will remain grammatical. In this sense, it is inessential--to the grammarian. The non-restrictive clauses are not irrelevant (I think that's what you mean by "arbitrary")--they communicate information important to understanding the meaning or importance of the communication.

If on the other hand I am writing about a prison break as follows, I am distinguishing one prisoner (the one who escaped) from the others, who apparently did not escape:

The prisoner who escaped had been convicted of tax evasion.

  • "I think that's what you mean by "arbitrary"" -- let the OP explain. – Kris Sep 3 '19 at 10:50

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