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The sentence below (1) is from the Cambridge Online Dictionary:

(1) Early in the Autumn Term there is a reception at which you can meet current staff and students. (which refers to a reception and is the complement of at).

If there is a relative pronoun, I can easily separate the sentence into two parts so the above sentence is like:

a. Early in the Autumn Term there is a reception

b. at that reception, you can meet current staff and students.

The sentence below (2) is from The Economist

(2) There is something on which to build.

It is different from:

(3) There is something to build.

(3) means you are building "something", whereas (2) means you are building whatever on "something".

So with the same logic from the Cambridge Dictionary, 'which' refers to 'something' and is the complement of 'on', right?

But because the relative pronoun 'which' is used, I feel like there should be 'a clause' rather than a dangling phrase. And I can't really separate the sentence into two like I did before for (1).

Any sources you will find will tell you "Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses." But (2) really isn't a "clause", if you know what I mean.

(2) There is something on which to build.

How is it that "which" introduces a relative clause on the sentence above?

  • "On which to build" is a relative clause with the complex relative phrase "on which". "There is something" + "something can be built on". – BillJ Apr 30 at 14:01
  • The relative phrase "on which" is called a 'prenucleus'. It has the function of complement of "build": "There is something on which to build ___". Gap is anaphoric to "on which", and "which" is anaphoric to "something". – BillJ Apr 30 at 14:54
  • See my answer for an analysis of your example. Let me know if it's still not clear. – BillJ Apr 30 at 15:57
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The confusion may come from the word ordering. The relative clause in (2) is "on which to build", from the verb "to build on", and the sentence may be restructured as:

There is something to build on.

Don't be afraid of the hanging preposition; there is nothing wrong with it. However, in (2), for whatever reason, the author desired to avoid the handing preposition, so added "which" as an object for "on".

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  • Eh? The relative clause in 2. is "on which to build". – BillJ Apr 30 at 14:14
  • if it is a clause, it should have a subject and a verb, that is , excluding to-infinitive, that's why I am not certain as to saying that it is not introducing a clause – briannjs Apr 30 at 14:16
  • like from (1), you can meet current staff and students. is a clause because it has a subject "you" and a main verb "can meet" . – briannjs Apr 30 at 14:19
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    @briannjs the verb is the infinitival "build". Like most non-finite clauses, it has no overt subject, though we understand it as some arbitrary person(s). What is so confusing about that? – BillJ Apr 30 at 14:37
  • @BillJ Correct. I've edited the answer to hopefully be more clear. I was trying to capture the verb, and muddled the wording through my rewrites. – Nick2253 Apr 30 at 14:37
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The relative phrase "on which" is called a 'prenucleus'. It has the function of complement of "build": 'Gap' is anaphoric to "on which", and "which" is anaphoric to "something".

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