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How acceptable is it to separate a that-clause from its referent with a prepositional phrase? It's a problem I keep running into, and I'm not sure if it's too jarring.

How would you rate the acceptability of the following sentences?

He placed a pizza on the table that was so big it took up half the space.
There was a pizza on the table that was so big it took up half the space.

I feel that the second is more acceptable than the first because in the second 'on the table' is part of the noun phrase, whereas in the first sentence it is more adverbial, describing where 'He' placed it. However, I'm not sure whether the first is ungrammatical.

Here is another sentence similar to the first with which I'm having the same problem.

I applied some cream to my face that started burning my skin.

I have the same confusion with which-clauses. If I were to rewrite the sentences as the following, I don't know if they would be better or worse.

He placed a pizza on the table, which was so big it took up half the space.

I applied some cream to my face, which started burning my skin.

Are there any rules regarding cases like these? I'm struggling to find any definitive answers. I appreciate any help.

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    Yeah, your first sentence definitely indicates that the table, not the pizza, took up half the space. The second sentence is fine: a pizza on the table was so big it took up half the space. Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 2:58
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    Does this answer your question? Position of a relative clause before/after a verb << All kinds of problems [that smaller animals or plants do not have to cope with] arise. Extraposition from NP changes this to the sentence: All kinds of problems arise [that smaller animals or plants do not have to cope with]. ... John Lawler >> Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 12:44
  • That link has already been given by its author in the last comment in Lambie's answer. In any case, this is not extraposition but postposing.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 13:04
  • I'd be happier with He placed a pizza down that was so big, it took up half the table. Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:15

2 Answers 2

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[1] He placed a pizza on the table that was so big it took up half the space.

[2] There was a pizza on the table that was so big it took up half the space.

[3] I applied some cream to my face that started burning my skin.

[4] He placed a pizza on the table, which was so big it took up half the space.

[5] I applied some cream to my face, which started burning my skin.

This is called postposing, a kind of construction where a relative clause occurs in postposed position, at the end of the clause containing its antecedent.

It's most likely when the informational content of the relative clause is greater than the material that would follow it in the matrix clause if it occupied its default position following the antecedent.

Provided there is no confusion as to the intended antecedent, then postposing is acceptable. There are some issues with your examples:

Examples [1] - [2] are poor and potentially ambiguous since it's possible to just momentarily assume that it's the table not the pizza that took up half the space. [3] is more acceptable: a face can hardly burn one's skin, so the antecedent can only be "cream".

[4] and [5] are not acceptable. Postposed relatives are virtually always of the restrictive kind. For example, [4] becomes quite unacceptable if we replace a "a pizza" in [1] with a proper name, which would require the relative to be non-restrictive. Compare the ungrammatical *"He placed Fido on the table, who was so big he took up half the space."

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  • Thank you for your answer. How would you recommend recasting the first sentence so it's less ambiguous? Could you move 'on the table' to an earlier position, so it would be 'He placed on the table a pizza that was so big...'? Or could you write 'He placed a pizza that was so big it took up half the space on the table'? I suppose that works OK with the pizza example, but in others, like the face cream one, it could be awkward: 'I applied some cream that started burning my skin to my face."
    – JJ_Doogal
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 11:52
  • "On the table, he placed a pizza that was so big it took up half the space". The "cream" example is acceptable as it is since there's no possible ambiguity.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 12:02
  • [5] is fine. I applied some cream to my face, which started burning my skin. That's a connective/sentence relative clause that refers to the whole proposition. The application of cream burned my skin. Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 16:01
  • That won't work. The OP is asking what happens when a relative clause is separated from its antecedent by a PP. This makes it clear that they intend the relatives in all the examples, including [5], to be modifiers, and thus restrictive. If the relative clause was to refer to the whole preceding applied clause it would be non-restrictive, and non-restrictive relatives are not modifiers, of course, but supplements.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 19:02
  • Thank you @BillJ for your comments. I was thinking that what Tinfoil Hat was suggesting might make [5] more acceptable (for instance, if I wrote something like "I put some cream on my face, which made the irritation worse," where the relative pronoun refers to the whole of the preceding clause), but, as you said, that wasn't my intention with my original sentences. One more thing: is there any difference in how the phrase 'on the table' functions in [1] and [2]? I think [2] is a little more acceptable than [1], and I think it has something to do with how the phrase functions.
    – JJ_Doogal
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 11:03
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Those two sentences are perfectly acceptable.

There is no difference to the part you are asking about. It functions the same way in both of them: that was so big [that] it took up half the space etc. Same thing. However, there is a semantic issue:

  • He placed a pizza that was so big it took up half the space on the table or table's space. That way we see that the pizza is taking up the space, not the table.

Please note: You actually have two relative clauses strung together there.

Your points concern different things.

Your second one is about this:
I applied some cream to my face that started burning my skin.

What you may not know is that there are certain verbs in English that can be followed by ing forms:

For example: start, finish, begin,

  • They began singing at 10 pm.
  • We finished cleaning in the morning.

All those relative clauses are called restrictive. They are not set off by commas and basically restrict the reference of the noun phrase they modify. There is no pause in the sentence where they are, either.

This one: He placed a pizza on the table, which was so big it took up half the space.

In this example, you can get away with semantic issue as the clause is set off by a comma so your interlocutor has time to think that it obviously refers to the pizza, not the table. As in: He placed a pizza on the table. It was so big it took up half the space. The which there replaces a potential second sentence.

This usage is called an unrestricted relative clause because you have chosen to put in a comma to separate it from the main clause.

"To make this as short and brutal an explanation as possible, think of a restrictive clause as a liver: a vital organ of the sentence that cannot be removed without killing it. A nonrestrictive clause, however, is more like the appendix or tonsils of a sentence: It may be desirable to have but can be removed without dying (so long as one does so carefully)." (Ammon Shea, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. Perigee, 2014) [Italics mine.]

Thought Company definition

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  • Thank you for your answer, but I'm still very confused as to whether the sentences are acceptable. If there is a semantics issue, then surely they aren't? I know what restrictive and non-restrictive clauses are, but the issue is that, in all the examples, the relative pronoun isn't immediately after the referent, and that could potentially cause ambiguity.
    – JJ_Doogal
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 1:29
  • Yes, ambiguity, which the reader may resolve by common sense. The reader is unlikely to apply rules. So learn to write unambiguously. Recast.
    – Xanne
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 1:55
  • They're fine. These are ordinary applications of the syntactic rule Extraposition from Noun Phrase. Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 2:07
  • @JohnLawler Would you mind posting an example for me in terms of the OP's examples? Thanks.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 9, 2022 at 18:18
  • @Lambie Well, I applied some cream to my face that started burning my skin comes from I applied some cream that started burning my skin to my face. The boldfaced relative clause is extraposed to the end of the sentence from its original position immediately after its antecedent cream. Commented Mar 9, 2022 at 18:32

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