On my last question, I asked if "looking for sea shells" was a non-restrictive clause in the sentence, "I was at the lake[,] looking for sea shells, but instead, I found this dollar bill." I was told that it was restrictive. I've asked a question quite a while ago, and it read: is the phrase, "looking for water," non-restrictive in the sentence, "I'm at the desert[,] looking for water"? I was told that it was a non-restrictive clause and therefore needs a comma before it. So why is "looking for water" non-restrictive but "looking for sea shells" isn't? Can someone clear this up for me?

  • 2
    Does it even make sense to label the argument of a verb as restrictive or non-restrictive? – Gary Botnovcan Oct 27 '16 at 15:25
  • No, I don't understand. – Tim Oct 27 '16 at 15:36
  • Because the terms restrictive and non-restrictive clauses refer to relative clauses, not prepositional phrases or gerunds. – Alan Carmack Oct 27 '16 at 16:25
  • See my recent answers to two of your prior questions. – Alan Carmack Oct 27 '16 at 16:42

Let's look at a simpler sentence first: 

I am happy. 

We can split this clause into a subject and a predicate.  The subject is "I", and the predicate is "am happy".  We can split that predicate into a verb and its argument: "am" and "happy", respectively. 

It is true that "happy" modifies the subject.  However, it doesn't directly modify that subject.  Instead, it acts as the argument of the verb, specifically as a subject complement.  There is no point in asking whether it is a restrictive or non-restrictive modifier because it isn't a direct modifier. 

Things are different if the modifier belongs directly to the subject.  The "happy" of "A happy man sat at the table" is a restrictive modifier. 

Here are two more sentences: 

I am in the desert. 
I am looking for water. 

These two sentences can be described in exactly the same way as the first sentence.  We can say that "in the desert" and "looking for water" are subject complements. 

A final two sentences: 

I am in the desert and looking for water. 
I am in the desert, looking for water. 

One of these sentences joins a pair of subject complements with a conjunction.  The other joins that same pair with nothing more than a comma.

The existence of the comma in the last sentence has nothing to do with non-restrictive modifiers.  Instead, the comma is there because otherwise it is the desert that is looking for water. 

  • With that said, "looking for sea shells" is a complement, but it needs a comma before it in the sentence, "I'm at a lake, looking for sea shells, but instead, I found this dollar," because you wouldn't want to mean that the lake is looking for sea shells, correct? – Tim Oct 27 '16 at 18:08
  • Yes, that comma (or the word "and") does eliminate that ambiguity. – Gary Botnovcan Oct 27 '16 at 18:15
  • In this example, "It might take a few hours, depending on the internet speed I can find," the phrase, "depending on the internet speed I can find," IS a non-restrictive clause because it's a modifier, right? – Tim Oct 27 '16 at 18:38
  • (I just want to be sure before I print out my essay.) – Tim Oct 27 '16 at 18:54

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