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Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Meaning

We shall have a rather long, but important point to mention in this lesson. If you understand which words/expressions have restrictive meaning and why; alternatively, which ones have non-restrictive meaning, then you’ll be more capable to distinguish between various uses of articles and other determiners, hence see the importance of actually using them in your speech and writing. Many people simply skip the articles and this makes very bad English, indeed.

To start at the beginning, take these expressions:

- The people
- A king
- The ticket inspector
- These bikes

As they stand, you wouldn’t know which people, which king, what sort of ticket inspector or bikes we are talking about. Of course you wouldn’t – we haven’t specified which and what sort, what kind they are. Imagine that you’re speaking like this, which is what beginners of a language start with usually.

Sometimes we need these expressions as they are, as in:
A king ruled peacefully over the people in a magical land over the mountains.”

This indicates that it doesn’t really matter which king it was exactly – it could have been any king for that matter.

But other times, we need to specify more precisely who the king is, like in:

Faisal was a king of Saudi Arabia for a long part of the last century.

This is not just any king, the range of kings is restricted to only one category of kings – those of Saudi Arabia.

In the expression ’a king of Saudi Arabia’ the words of Saudi Arabia is called a modifier, which helps to specify the meaning of ‘a king’ more precisely.

Equally we can modify ‘the people’, ‘the ticket inspector’ and ‘these bikes’:

- The people who live next door
- The angry ticket inspector
- These latest mountain bikes

When we use a modifier with a noun in order to narrow it down or to restrict its meaning, by saying what kind of people, king, ticket inspector, bikes, etc. we are talking about, this modifier is called restrictive.

On the other hand, we also have a non-restrictive type of modifier, which does not limit the noun in this sense. Getting to distinguish between these two is a good skill to have, which will help you to also give your speech the correct intonation, as well as the correct punctuation to your writing. It’s very simple, but you need to practice with this:

Take for example:

1) She prefers to go out with her brother who drives a Ferrari.
2) She prefers to go out with her brother, who drives a Ferrari.

In the first sentence, the second part [who drives a Ferrari] points out which brother she prefers to go out with - we won’t be asking why, OK? The assumption is that she has more than one brother, but this is the one she prefers to go out with. He is a selected brother, so this modifier is restrictive, i.e. it restricts the choice of brothers to this one.

In the second sentence, the second part is non-restrictive. Instead of selecting, it adds information about the brother. We can assume that she only has one brother in this one, and by the way, he happens to drive a Ferrari.

When we have this kind of situation, we need to indicate this, by raising our voice in speech, or by using a comma [,] in writing.

The above were relative clauses, but simple adjectives can also perform this task of restricting the meaning of a noun. Be careful with these, as they are not so clearly marked (by punctuation or intonation), so more ambiguities may occur.

Any adjective placed in front of a noun is restricting it, reducing the range of the things/people we’re talking about the more specific ones, as imposed by the adjective:

a) The car…
b) The red car…
a) The girls…
b) The fashionable girls…

However, look at the adjectives in the following sentences:

a) The diligent students will always do their homework prior to class.
b) The poor inhabitants of the outskirts of Detroit attacked the offices of their rich bankers.

In [a] do we mean that all students (non-restrictive) are diligent and will do their homework? Or do we mean that only some students (those who are diligent) (restrictive) will do it? In speech, you can mark the difference by putting the stress on 'students' for the non-restrictive meaning and on 'diligent' for the restrictive meaning of this adjective. Try it and see how it sounds. In writing though, you can't do this easily.

In [b] do we refer to all the inhabitants and all the bankers, who happen to be poor and rich, respectively (non-restrictive); or do we refer to only the poor people and only to the rich bankers (as opposed to the poor ones, if there are any) (restrictive)?

You see, these sentences could have either meaning, but the non-restrictive meaning is more likely.

Special case - a double adjective

Now, when we have two adjectives in front of a noun, the ordering of these can make a difference in the perceived meaning:

Her last great novel -> ‘great’ is restrictive (which last novel? – the great one, or the last of her great novels)

Her great last novel -> ‘great’ is non-restrictive (her last novel, which was great) - do you get it?

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