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The handbag which was left on the bus yesterday belongs to my sister.

The handbag which belongs to my sister was left on the bus yesterday.

Are both sentences idiomatic? I have the first one in my grammar book. As I understand it, we can change a little the meaning of the sentences in that way. Right?

3 Answers 3

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A couple of commas would help:

The handbag, which was left on the bus yesterday, belongs to my sister.

The handbag, which belongs to my sister, was left on the bus yesterday.

The main content of the first sentence is "The handbag belongs to my sister". This sentence could be the answer to "Who owns the handbag?" The relative clause is additional information, inserted parathetically. You could even use brackets instead of commas.

The main content of the second sentence is that "the handbag was left on the bus", and could answer "What happened to the handbag?" or "Where was the handbag left?"

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Your second example has issues. Some insist that defining clauses should be introduced with 'that', not 'which'. By changing the sentence around you have made the ownership of the handbag a defining clause.

In the original, the fact it was left on the bus could even be parenthetical and the statement would still make sense - the handbag belongs to your sister:

The handbag (which was left on the bus yesterday) belongs to my sister.

But if you did the same to your second example it is problematic:

The handbag (which belongs to my sister) was left on the bus yesterday.

"The handbag" - which handbag? When we use the definite article it needs to be clear what it refers to. That is why the ownership is a defining clause. So, it should ideally be:

The handbag that belongs to my sister was left on the bus yesterday.

But that does sound a bit formal and clunky. More idiomatically, we would say:

My sister's handbag was left on the bus yesterday.

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  • Why is "which handbag" an objection only to the second sentence? IMO it's just as valid a question to the first sentence. Feb 15, 2022 at 11:26
  • @StrangerToKindness You may have misunderstood - it wouldn't be an objection to the complete sentence, only if the middle clause was omitted. I was trying to prove the point that it is a defining clause.
    – Astralbee
    Feb 15, 2022 at 11:51
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The first version sounds like there is only one handbag which was left on the bus yesterday, because the phrase "which was left on the bus yesterday" is a relative clause, so without it the sentence reads "The handbag belongs to my sister."

The second one sounds like there is only one handbag which belongs to your sister, because the phrase "which belongs to my sister" is a relative clause, so without it the sentence reads "The handbag was left on the bus yesterday."

Both are grammatically correct, and either one could be true, but you are correct in noting that the two versions have slightly different implications.

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