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3.1.2. Differences in function

This section briefly explains the difference in function between restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers. The discussion will be confined to constructions with specific definite, specific indefinite and generic noun phrases. More detailed discussions can be found in Sections 3.2 and 3.3 on the different types of pre- and postmodifiers, including quantified noun phrases and noun phrases with possessive pronouns.

[+]  I.  Postmodification

Restrictive postmodifiers are needed to unequivocally determine the referent of the noun phrase; its semantic function is to restrict the set denoted by the head noun, and for this reason both the noun and the modifier are plausibly part of the NP-domain of the noun phrase, as indicated in (10a). In the case of non-restrictive postmodification, on the other hand, the modifier is not needed to establish the referent of the noun phrase; the non-restrictive modifier does not restrict the denotation of the head noun, but simply provides additional information about the referent of the noun phrase. In this case, the non-restrictive modifier can therefore be considered part of the DP-domain of the noun phrase, as in (10b).

Example 10
a. Restrictive postmodification: [DP D ... [NP [... N ...] MODrestrictive]]
b. Non-restrictive postmodification: [DP D ... [NP ... N ...] MODnon-restrictive]

Note that the non-restrictive modifier seems to have the whole noun phrase in its scope, and that for this reason it is often assumed that the non-restrictive modifier is not within the DP, as in (10b), but attached to it at some higher level. The reason for adopting the structure in (10b) will be clear from the discussion of example (19) in Subsection II.

[+]  A.  Definite noun phrases

Restrictive modifiers restrict the set of referents of the noun phrase, whereas non-restrictive modifiers do not. This means in the case of definite noun phrases that the restrictive modifier is needed in order to enable the listener to pick out the intended (possibly singleton) set of referents, whereas the non-restrictive modifier simply provides additional information about the intended referent of the noun phrase. Consider the examples in (11).

Example 11
a. De kat, naast me op het bed, ligt te spinnen.
  the cat  beside me on the bed  lies  to purr
  'The cat, beside me on the bed, is purring.'
b. De kat op het bed ligt te spinnen (die op de vensterbank niet).
  the cat  on the bed  lies  to purr   that on the windowsill not
  'The cat on the bed was purring (the one on the windowsill wasnʼt).'

In example (11a), the cat referred to by the noun phrase is assumed to be identifiable to the hearer within the given context, and the information provided in the PP naast me op het bed'beside me on the bed' simply provides additional information about the location of cat in question; if the modifier were left out, the sentence would be less informative, but still perfectly acceptable. In example (11b), on the other hand, the PP-modifier provides information that the hearer needs in order to properly identify the intended referent of the noun phrase; there are several entities in the domain of discourse (domain D) that are part of the denotation of the head noun kat'cat', and the restrictive modifier provides the additional information required for the hearer to pick out the intended referent.
      Restrictive modifiers can therefore be said to be required for successful communication: if domain D contains several cats and the speaker would say de kat ligt te spinnen'the cat is purring', the hearer will not be able to identify the intended referent of the noun phrase, and will most certainly ask for additional information. It is not surprising, therefore, that a frequently used test to tell the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers involves the question as to whether the modifier can be left out. This test is pragmatic rather than syntactic in nature, since the result is, strictly speaking, always grammatical, so that the acceptability of the resulting construction should be valued in terms of felicitousness within the given context: leaving out a non-restrictive modifier merely leads to a less informative, but unambiguously interpretable sentence, whereas leaving out a restrictive modifier yields either an insufficiently informative and therefore infelicitous sentence or an incorrect/unintended (overgeneralized) statement.
      That restrictive modifiers are used to enable the hearer to pick out the intended referent(s) whereas non-restrictive modifiers provide additional information on the intended referent is also clear from the fact that uniquely referring noun phrases cannot be modified by the latter. This can be readily illustrated by considering examples such as (12) in which the relative clause modifies a proper noun. Example (12a) is acceptable given that the non-restrictive relative clause simply provides information about the intended referentʼs mother. Example (12b), on the other hand, would only be acceptable under the exceptional circumstance that the hearer knows that there is more than one person by the name of Jan de Jong, only one of whom happens to have an Argentine mother. And, actually, even under this interpretation the example is marginal, since the proper noun would then preferably be treated as a count noun and be preceded by the definite article: De Jan de Jong die een Argentijnse moeder heeft, spreekt vloeiend Spaans (see also Section 1.2.1, sub II).

Example 12
a. Jan de Jong (, die een Argentijnse moeder heeft,) spreekt vloeiend Spaans.
  Jan de Jong  who an Argentine mother has  speaks fluently Spanish
  'Jan de Jong (, who has an Argentine mother,) speaks Spanish fluently.'
b. ?? Jan de Jong die een Argentijnse moeder heeft, spreekt vloeiend Spaans.

Something similar holds for the examples in (13) where the referent of datzelfde boek'that same book' can be assumed to be known to the addressee without the information provided in the relative clause: using a non-restrictive relative clause, as in (13a), is possible since it simply provides some additional information about the book in question; adding a restrictive relative clause, as in (13b), is impossible since it suggests that one and the same book can have different contents.

Example 13
a. Voor datzelfde boek, dat over de oorlog gaat, kreeg hij een prijs.
  for that same book  which about the war goes  got  he  a prize
  'For that same book, which is about the war, he received a prize.'
b. * Voor datzelfde boek dat over de oorlog gaat, kreeg hij een prijs.

      The examples in (12) and (13) show that restrictive modifiers cannot be used if the referent of the definite noun phrase is already uniquely determined without it. The opposite restriction seems to hold for the non-restrictive modifier: the referent of the noun phrase must be uniquely determined in domain D in order for a non-restrictive modifier to be licensed. This is illustrated by (14), in which the non-restrictive relative clauses can be used, but only if the referents of the noun phrases have been introduced into the discourse before. If this is not the case, the sentences must be pronounced/have the punctuation associated with a restrictive relative clause.

Example 14
a. Ik heb de auto, die erg duur was, op afbetaling gekocht.
  I have the car  which very expensive was  on credit  bought
  'I bought the car, which was very expensive, on credit.'
b. De student, die een Argentijnse moeder had, sprak vloeiend Spaans.
  the student  who an Argentine mother had  spoke fluently Spanish
  'The student, who had an Argentine mother, spoke Spanish fluently.'

      To conclude, we want to emphasize that although non-restrictive modifiers do not play a role in determining the proper referent set of the noun phrase, they do play an important role in the discourse. For example, the information given in the relative clauses in (14) may be construed as the motivation or reason for the proposition expressed by the main clause: (14a) suggests that the speaker has bought the car on credit, because it was very expensive, and (14b) suggests that the fact that the student spoke Spanish fluently is due to the fact that he has an Argentine mother. In some cases leaving out a non-restrictive modifier may even lead to pragmatically infelicitous sentences. This may be the case in sentences that contain an element that can only be properly interpreted on the basis of the information given by the non-restrictive modifier. Consider example (15a): if the information given in the non-restrictive modifier net uit het ziekenhuis'just out of the hospital' is new to the hearer, the adverbial phrase natuurlijk'of course' in example (15a) cannot be properly understood without it: the sentence is not ungrammatical without the modifier, but nevertheless infelicitous in the given context. The same thing holds for (15b), where the proper interpretation of the element toch'still' requires knowledge of the fact that my friend has six children: “despite the fact that my friend has six children, she still has time for a job.”

Example 15
a. Mijn opa, net uit het ziekenhuis, kan vanavond natuurlijk niet komen.
  my granddad  just out.of the hospital  can tonight  of.course  not  come
  'My granddad, just out of the hospital, cannot come tonight, of course.'
b. Mijn vriendin, die zes kinderen heeft, heeft toch nog tijd voor een baan.
  my friend  who six children has  has  still  yet time  for a job
  'My friend, who has six children, still has time for a job.'
[+]  B.  Specific indefinite noun phrases

If the noun phrase is indefinite with a specific referent, the function of the non-restrictive modifier is again to provide additional information about the referent of the noun phrase, the main difference with definite noun phrases being that this referent is not assumed to be identifiable for the hearer. The function of the restrictive relative clause, on the other hand, does change: although its main function is still to restrict the referent set of the noun phrase, it no longer serves to enable the hearer to uniquely identify this referent (set). Let us consider the indefinite version of the examples in (12), given in (16).

Example 16
a. Ik heb een auto, die erg duur was, op afbetaling gekocht.
  I have a car  which very expensive was  on credit  bought
  'I bought a car, which was very expensive, on credit.'
b. Ik heb een auto die erg duur was, op afbetaling gekocht.

The indefiniteness of the noun phrase suggests that the hearer is not assumed to be able to pick out the intended referent: the speaker may be introducing a new entity into domain D or there may be several cars in this domain. The difference between the restrictive and non-restrictive sentences is that whereas the former supply additional information, the latter restrict the set of possible referents. Since identifiability is not at stake here, omitting the relative clause gives rise to a felicitous result in both cases. However, leaving out the restrictive relative clause changes the presuppositions of the main clause, whereas this is not the case for constructions with non-restrictive relative clauses. Thus in (16a) the core message conveyed is that the speaker bought only one car, and in addition it is said about this one car that it is an expensive car; leaving out the non-restrictive relative clause does not affect the core message. In (16b), on the other hand, the use of the restrictive relative clause suggests that the speaker bought more than one car, and that only for the expensive one payment was deferred. This suggestion that the speaker bought several cars is lost if the restrictive relative clause is dropped.

[+]  C.  Generic noun phrases

The difference in function between non-restrictive and restrictive modification is particularly clear in constructions with generic noun phrases introduced by an indefinite article ( een'a' in the singular and the empty form Ø in the plural), since these can only be modified by restrictive modifiers. Example (17a) gives constructions with relative clauses, example (17b) constructions with prepositional postmodifiers, and example (17c) constructions with adjectival postmodifiers.

Example 17
a. Een student die lui is, haalt geen voldoende.
  a student who lazy is  gains  no pass
  'A student who is lazy wonʼt get a pass.'
a'. # Een student, die lui is, haalt geen voldoende.
b. Steden met meer dan een miljoen inwoners zijn wereldsteden.
  cities with more than a million inhabitants  are  metropolises
b'. * Steden, met meer dan een miljoen inwoners, zijn wereldsteden.
c. Kinderen ouder dan 5 jaar moeten betalen.
  children older than 5 year  must  pay
  'Children over the age of five have to pay.'
c'. * Kinderen, ouder dan 5 jaar, moeten betalen.

The restrictive modifiers in the primeless examples restrict the referent set of the noun phrase. This means that in all these sentences, the noun phrase without the modifier refers to a larger set of entities than the modified noun phrase: in (17a), it is predicated of only a subset of student that they will not get a pass; in (17b) the set of all cities is restricted to the ones with more than one million inhabitants and it is to this subset that the predication applies, and (17c) asserts that it is only children over the age of five that have to pay.
      One way of accounting for the unacceptability of the primed examples in (17) is to appeal to our knowledge of the world by saying that since the modifier does not restrict the referent set, it will be taken to provide additional information about the full sets denoted by the nouns. This would mean that these sentences express two propositions which are both said to be true of the full denotations of the nouns. Example (17a'), for example, states that anyone who is a student will fail the exam, while at the same time all students are said to be lazy. In (17b') both propositions expressed are clearly false: not all cities have more than one million inhabitants and not all cities are metropolises. Similarly, in (17c') the implication that all children are more than five years old is false. It is not entirely clear, however, whether appealing to our knowledge of the world is sufficient to account for the unacceptability of the primed examples in (17), since this wrongly predicts that examples in which both propositions are true should be fully acceptable: this is the case in (18a&b), which are nevertheless dubious. For completeness’ sake, note that the (textbook) example in (18c), in which a definite noun phrase refers to the species/family of whales, is fully acceptable.

Example 18
a. ?? Een walvis, die een zoogdier is, komt nooit aan land.
  a whale which a mammal is  comes  never  to land
  'A whale, which is a mammal, never comes ashore.'
b. ?? Walvissen, die zoogdieren zijn, komen nooit aan land.
  whales  which  mammals  are  come  never  to land
  'Whales, which are mammals, never come ashore.'
c. De walvis, die een zoogdier is, komt nooit aan land.
  the whale  which  a mammal  is,  comes  never  ashore
  'The whale, which is a mammal, never comes ashore.'
[+]  II.  Premodification

The distinction between prenominal restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers has received much less attention. Nevertheless, the same difference in function can be perceived as in the case of postmodification: restrictive premodifiers restrict the set of possible referents of the entire noun phrase, whereas non-restrictive premodifiers simply assign an additional property to all the members of the referent set in question. As a result, leaving out the premodifier will again affect the reference of the noun phrase as well as the presuppositions involved in the case of restrictive, but not in the case of non-restrictive modification. Consider the examples in (19), which contain a definite noun phrase with an adjectival premodifier.

Example 19
a. Caesar prees de dappere Germanen.
  Caesar praised  the brave Germans
b. De dertigjarige dader werd direct gearresteerd.
  the  thirty.year.old  perpetrator  was  immediately  arrested

In (19a&b), the adjectives dappere'brave' and dertigjarige'thirty-year-old' can be given either a restrictive or a non-restrictive interpretation; cf. also Section A1.3.2.1, sub I. In the former case, the adjective is usually stressed and functions to distinguish the relevant subsets of brave Germans and thirty-year-old perpetrators from the larger sets denoted by the nouns Germaan'German' and dader'perpetrator'. Leaving out the adjective would, therefore, change the reference of the noun phrases in question. In these same constructions, however, the adjectives may also fulfill a non-restrictive function. In that case the adjective is normally not stressed and the presupposition is that all Germans are brave and that there was only one perpetrator, who happened to be thirty years old. The adjectives provide additional, descriptive information; without them the DPs are less informative but still refer to the same entities.
      Since we have argued that noun phrases have the structure [DP D [NP ... N ...]], the examples in (19) show that non-restrictive modifiers can be DP-internal: the non-restrictive attributive adjectives in (19) are placed between the determiner and the noun, and therefore they cannot be placed at some level higher than the DP. This has been our main reason for assuming in (10) that the postnominal non-restrictive modifiers are also DP-internal. The claim that non-restrictive modifiers are DP-internal implies that the differences in function and scope between restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers must follow from the fact that they are attached at different levels within the noun phrase; given the fact that current generative grammar distinguishes several functional layers within the noun phrase in between DP and N, there will be ample opportunity to do this. Here we will not attempt to make the structure more precise; see Section 1.1.2, sub IIA, and Alexiadou et al. (2007: ch.3) for relevant discussion. For the sake of completeness, note that in other approaches this problem need not arise: in, e.g., Diks Functional Grammar adjectival modifiers are added to a head noun as restrictors, which may take N, NP or DP in their scope. It will be clear, however, that in such a representation the order in which various elements are given does not directly correspond to the order in which they eventually appear in speech.
      Clear instances of non-restrictively used adjectives are those adjectives modifying entities that are uniquely identifiable in a given context. This is the case, for instance, with proper nouns, such as Westertoren (the name of a well-known tower in Amsterdam) and Amerika'America' in examples (20a&b). As the referent set of these proper nouns consists of one member only, restriction is not possible. The adjective can therefore only fulfill a non-restrictive, descriptive function.

Example 20
a. Links ziet u de mooie Westertoren.
  left  see  you  the beautiful Westertoren
  'On your left you see the beautiful Westertoren.'
b. Het machtige Amerika doet wat het wil.
  the mighty America  does  what  it  wants

Note that, occasionally, proper nouns can be modified by a restrictive adjective. In those cases, however, the proper nouns are no longer construed as having unique reference. Some examples are given in (21). For more details, see Section 1.2.1, sub II.

Example 21
a. Het 17e-eeuwse Nederland was een bloeiende natie; het 19e-eeuwse niet meer.
  the 17th-century Netherlands  was a flourishing nation  the 19th-century  no more
  '17th-century Holland was a flourishing nation; 19th-century Holland no longer was.'
b. Het gerestaureerde Centraal Station is veel ruimer dan het oude.
  the restored Central Station  is much more.spacious  than the old
  'The restored Central Station is much more spacious than the old station.'

      In the case of an indefinite modified noun phrase, the adjective may again be either restrictive or non-restrictive, although the latter interpretation is much more difficult to achieve. Thus, in example (22a) the adjective dappere can receive only a restrictive interpretation, regardless of which part of the noun phrase receives primary stress. In all interpretations the set of brave Germans will be understood as forming a subset of the total set of Germans. In an example such as (22b), on the other hand, stress may be a disambiguating factor. If the adjective is stressed, the implication is that there are more suspects, but only one that is thirty years old; as such the adjective has a restrictive function. Unstressed, the adjective may have a non-restrictive function: there is no implication as to the number of suspects and the adjective fulfills a purely descriptive function.

Example 22
a. Caesar prees dappere Germanen.
  Caesar praised  brave Germans
b. Een dertigjarige verdachte werd direct gearresteerd.
  a thirty.year.old suspect  was  immediately  arrested

      If the head noun is a proper noun, the adjective can receive only a restrictive interpretation. In (23a&b) the prenominal modifying past participle mooi verlichte'beautifully illuminated' and the adjective machtig'mighty' are stage-level predicates: if the property changes, so will, at least metaphorically speaking, the entity it is assigned to. This means that in these cases the referents of the proper nouns are no longer unique, which also explains the use of the indefinite article; cf. example (20).

Example 23
a. Links ziet u een mooi verlichte Westertoren.
  left  see  you  a beautifully illuminated Westertoren
  'On the left you see a beautifully illuminated Westertoren.'
b. Een machtig Amerika zal doen wat het wil.
  a mighty America  will  do  what  it  wants
  • Alexiadou, Artemis, Haegeman, Liliane & Stavrou, Melita2007Noun phrases in the generative perspectiveBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
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