I have recently been learning about complementisers and relative clauses etc. and how they relate to x-bar theory. It is a feature of English that some complementisers are optional, especially in spoken English, e.g. "I think (that) you are great".

This is also true for relative clauses: "The person (that) I saw yesterday"; "The ball (that is) on the table".

However, sometimes they are not optional: "The dog that is red" --> *"The dog red".

I suppose what I mean is, is there a way of telling when "that is" is a not-present optional complementiser, and when it is actually not present?

For example, with one of the above sentences, is "that is" really implied in the NP, "The ball on the table", or is it simply not there at all?

More particularly, with adjectives like 'available':

"The bread available in the bakery looks delicious".

Does this sentence contain an implied "that is", i.e. it is really a contracted way of saying "The bread THAT IS available in the bakery looks delicious", or does it actually not contain or imply at all "that is"?

This relates to x-bar theory, or rather phrase structure rules, in that normally adjective phrases are not allowed to come after a noun (except in poetic usage etc.), so if "available in the bakery" is an adjective phrase (not a relative clause), why can it come after the noun "bread"?

[in this question I have assumed that "that is" is a complementiser just like "that"; I admit I am not totally sure about this]


  • Look up Whiz-Deletion. That can serve as a relative pronoun, like which or who, and Whiz-Deletion deletes the subject and initial be of relative clauses like which is on the table into the post nominal modifiers like the book on the table. Historically, the that of relative clauses used to be a complementizer, but in relative clauses it's filled every possible role of wh-words, except that it can't be used in non-restrictive relatives, and it can't be pied-piped -- those are fates reserved for wh-words.
    – jlawler
    Oct 5 at 21:18
  • “The ball on the table” is just a DP with a PP adjunct, you need to be careful with be. You may enjoy Dwight Bolinger’s book That’s that, where he shows that there are often nuanced differences between the sentences with overt and covert complementizer.
    – Keelan
    Oct 7 at 18:41
  • @jlawler Whiz deletion is just giving a term to the phenomenon being asked about. The question is, essentially, how do you tell whether a noun + post-modifier phrase is an instance of whiz deletion or not? Do you consider all post-modifiers to be whiz-deletions (in which case you’d be contradicting @Keelan)? How do you tell the difference between a whiz-deleted (and therefore on the surface nonexistent) relativiser + copula and a phrase that actually has no relativiser + copula at all? Oct 7 at 23:24
  • @JanusBahsJacquet that's an interesting question and I'll think about it. The interesting cases would be the ones where relativization is impossible. What are some? If there aren't any then why bother to distinguish, except by rule? Plus, I enjoy all of Bolinger's work, but I don't think his nuances distinguish between real and unreal absence.
    – jlawler
    Oct 8 at 15:50
  • @jlawler The only cases I can think off offhand where relativisation appears impossible to me are what you might call opposites to “*The dog red” – that is, where relativisation is mandatory with regular adjectives because most adjectives cannot post-modify (nor, apparently, whiz-delete), it is blocked with postpositive adjectives: courts [*that are] martial, attorney [*that is] general, spaghetti [*that is] bolognese. Perhaps those pronouns that mandate post-modification are also a case, since only the potentially whiz-deleted forms are possible there: someone nice / *nice someone. Oct 8 at 16:01

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