In what sense do non-restrictive phrases limit meaning?

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.

Merriam Webster.

But in this example, the non-restrictive word 'Susan' (between parenthetical commas) seems to add information that limits meaning.

My sister, Susan, likes to shop

'Susan' is an appositive that renames "my sister" as "Susan", and says I only have one sister (Susan). It adds information that limits "my sister" to 'Susan': surely that means that it limits meaning, as well as not limiting the referent?

What is the difference between the "reference" that isn't limited and the meaning that is?


A limitation is information that narrows the range of possible referents. For example, in the case of a restrictive relative clause as in "My sister Susan likes to shop (but my sister Sally hates to shop)", the RC narrows the referent of "my sister" to Susan. Non-restrictive relative clauses, as in "My sister, Susan, likes to shop" (paraphrasing "My sister, whose name is Susan..."), do not narrow the range of referents, they just tell you something more about that referent (namely, what her name is).

I don't know what you mean by limiting meaning.

  • how did i not explain it, i'm confused? 'Susan' adds information that limits "my sister" to 'Susan'. Sep 2 '19 at 21:19
  • thanks for the answer, it kinda added some clarity, despite just repeating what i said in the question. but without saying how i've confused you, i think i will have to downvote it Sep 2 '19 at 22:28
  • again, i don't see how you've added anything new to the answer (or question). i am lost and (perhaps) expecting too much... yet it is oddly helpful. +1 Sep 2 '19 at 23:08

If you consider the meaning of "My sister likes to shop" to be the set of possible worlds in which this sentence is true, then the meaning of "My sister, Susan, likes to shop" is more limited, since it is true only in the subset of those worlds in which my sister is also named Susan.

  • The same is true of 'sister' in the phrase "My sister Susan likes to shop", right? Sep 3 '19 at 1:50
  • @user3293056, if you mean as compared with "My relative Susan likes to shop", then yes, that is also a limitation of the meaning.
    – Greg Lee
    Sep 3 '19 at 1:55
  • sorry i meant true of 'Susan'. my mistake Sep 3 '19 at 2:01

Simple answer: I was confused.

The appositive 'Susan' does not limit meaning per se. All it does is rename "my sister" as Susan. In doing so it says "my sister" that likes to shop is called "Susan". But the referent is already fixed. The appositive -- rather than vice versa (as I thought) -- has its referent limited, due to that referent already being fixed by the rest of the sentence.

"Susan" is what is referred to by 'My sister', so she is the only thing that is "my sister" here.

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