Monday, June 07, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: What's up with THAT?

A few weeks ago, an intriguing grammatical topic came up in my Writing Careers for English Majors class. We had been discussing the problem areas in our writing--long sentences, commonly misspelled words, comma use and someone asked the professor what his written hang-up was. "I have problems with that," was his response. We all laughed, thinking he was referring to writing in general. What he was referring to was "that" as subordinative conjunction, also known as the aptly-named empty complimentizer. For example, when I wrote, "We all laughed, thinking he was referring to writing in general," I could have written, "We all laughed, thinking that he was referring to writing in general," and the meaning would be exactly the same. It was a strange moment, a room full of English majors, most of whom are working on a writing minor, and none of us could think of a reason for the extra word. The professor works at the Writing Center at PSU and has given this extensive thought and asked several colleagues. No one knows. In this context, it seems that "that" is simply decadent.

"That" often appears as an introduction to a restrictive clause as a relative pronoun. For example, "Audrey thinks that the sky is blue," vs. the non-restrictive version, "Audrey thinks the sky is blue." It is can also be used to connote an abstract distance as in , "this or that." It's primary function is as a demonstrative, as in, "That cat said hello, " or, "That dog was displeased." Though still vague, "that" gets props for establishing space and specifying which cat or dog one is discussing.

As for "that" as a subordinate conjunction, it's a matter of taste. If you like your sentences restrictive, by all means, indulge in the pointlessness. Its use does carry a certain proper, tea party quality. It can also enhance clarity in a long sentences, the pause that you hear in speech is a good place for a "that." The logic behind this variety of "that" remains a mystery, but it seems that it must serve a purpose, even if only to ease the transition from thought to text.


  1. I feel like "that" is usually used as an addition. At least to me "He's just not into you" and "He's just not that into you" mean different things. The first means that he doesn't like you at all, the second that he doesn't like you as much as you like him or very much. Between that and the cat, I would usually assume that if it is "that" cat, then there are more than one cat, and if it is the cat, there is only one. At least thats how I tend to mentally use those words...

  2. You're absolutely right. I took the picture down. It does not apply to the type of "that" I intended to focus on.