The two objects have no contact that causes friction.

I created the sentence above to say that the two objects do not touch each other, so there is no friction between them.

I wonder which of "no contact" and "contact" serves as the subject for the verb "cause". If "no contact" serves as the subject, my sentence does not say what I mean.

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    Many native speakers would probably say The two objects have no point of contact that causes friction. Or even more naturally, and avoiding the unwanted implication that they might have frictionless points of contact, The two objects have no point of contact to cause friction. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 23 '18 at 18:01
  • If we were to understand no contact as the "object", that would imply that the lack of contact causes something. As, for example, The two Mafia families have no contact, which sometimes causes dangerous misunderstandings. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 23 '18 at 18:05
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    The antecedent is the nominal "contact". Integrated (defining) relative clauses modify nouns or nominals, not noun phrases. "No" is a determiner, and although part of the noun phrase "no contact", it is not part of the nominal, which is just "contact" and thus not part of the antecedent. So your intended meaning is intact. – BillJ Mar 23 '18 at 18:26
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    "No" is never an adjective. It can be an adverb, as in "it is no better", and it has a minor use as a noun, but elsewhere it is a determinative functioning as a determiner. – BillJ Mar 23 '18 at 19:03
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    Yes, determiners: ef.edu/english-resources/english-grammar/determiners Specifically quantifiers. In TOEFL, they are often just called adjectives when used with a noun. In any case, the sentence the OP asked about was fine, regardless of what you call it. – Lambie Mar 23 '18 at 19:27

The example sentence is ambiguous. The problem is that the word "that" works both ways: It not only restricts "causes friction" to having a subject of "[any] contact", it also restricts the "contact" to having the attribute of "causes friction". Either way, the existence of the hypothetical "contact" is negated by the word "no".

It could mean exactly what the original poster intends: There is no contact between the objects, so there is no friction between the objects. In this case, the emphasis is on restricting "causes friction".

However, the example sentence does not rule out the possibility that the might be some contact between the objects, but (somehow) the contact does not cause friction between the objects. In this case, the emphasis is on restricting the kinds of "contact" being discussed. For example, the objects could contact each other in a place where there is no relative motion between the objects. Or the coefficient of friction between the objects could be very low, or there could be very little force pressing the objects together. These effects could cause the friction force between the objects to be negligible compared to other forces affecting the objects.

The "No true Scotsman" logical fallacy plays with words in a similar way.

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Actually "that" is the subject for the verb "causes". In this sentence "that" is a relative pronoun. "No contact" is the object of "have".

On the subject of friction---it's not the contact that causes friction. Rather it's the dissipation of energy when molecules "slide" over each other that causes friction.

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  • In modern grammar, "that" is not a relative pronoun, but a subordinator. – BillJ Mar 24 '18 at 17:33
  • Kids these days with their "modern grammar". In my day we had to diagram sentences using sticks. Seriously, though, isn't the subordination being accomplished with a relative pronoun or has that concept disappeared and I am just showing my age? – m_a_s Mar 25 '18 at 18:09
  • I wish! The claim is that relative "that" is not a relative pronoun but a subordinator that functions as a marker, just as it is when it introduces declarative content clauses, e.g., "I know that Ed is a fool". One piece of evidence to support this comes from the fact that an example like "the patients to whom the letter was sent" is grammatical but *"the patients to that the letter was sent" is of course not. If "that" really was a relative pronoun, it could replace "whom". – BillJ Mar 26 '18 at 8:39

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