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Author Topic: “That” and its many grammatical uses  (Read 209 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 17, 2017, 09:57:11 PM »

Easily one of the most versatile words in the English vocabulary is “that,” which functions in any of four ways: as adjective, pronoun, conjunction, and adverb. It insinuates itself into the language in as many as 15 grammatical situations—and it has that rare semantic power to repeat itself side-by-side in a sentence and still make perfect sense: “I said that that woman is the loveliest I have seen in my life.” The first “that,” of course, works as a conjunction to introduce a noun clause (“that woman is the loveliest I have seen in my life”) serving as predicate nominative of the verb “said”; the second “that,” as an adjective to designate something already spoken of (in this case, that particular woman whom the speaker describes in the most glowing terms).

That double use of “that,” of course, bewilders a lot of people; many actually go at great lengths to eliminate one of those two “thats” to feel comfortable with the sentence. Except for the adjective/adverb “so so” for “indifferent(ly) “ or “not very good,” I can’t think of any other English word that can perform this linguistic magic and cause such semantic discomfort.

As an adjective, “that” functions in three other ways: (1) to designate something already known to both speaker and listener: “I no longer want to talk about that matter you raised”; (2) to designate something more or less distant: “I have often climbed that hill in my youth”; and (3) to serve as a correlative of  “this” (meaning the other or second of two things): “She wants this and that (chair, painting, vase) in her bedroom.” In all four usages, “that” serves to quickly bring both speaker and listener to the realm of the already familiar.

When used as a stand-alone pronoun, “that” handily takes the place of the same nouns and noun phrases it designates when functioning as an adjective: (1) to stand for something already spoken of: “That is what she is to me (the loveliest woman I have seen in my life).” (2) to stand for something already known to both speaker and listener: “As to that (the matter you raised), I no longer want to talk about it.” (3) to stand for something more or less distant: “Do you see that? (It’s the hill that I often climbed in my youth.)”

Aside from these, the pronoun “that” works (1) to represent the thing or the one spoken of: “That which is good is treasured.” (2) to take the place of “who,” “whom,” or “which” in such phrase constructions as “the woman that I married,” (3) to serve as semantic stand-in for the prepositions “in,” “for,” “on,” or “at which” in such constructions as “the moment that she woke up.”

But the most grammatically challenging use of “that” is as a conjunction. Many English-language users fumble here because of a semantic peculiarity of “that”: it can be dropped from a sentence not on the basis of firm rules but largely by feel. Let’s take up the three functions of “that” as conjunction to see where the usage difficulties usually occur:

To introduce a noun clause serving as the verb’s object, subject, or predicate nominative. (1) Introducing a noun clause as object: “He promised that he would marry her.” The noun clause “he would marry her” is the object of the verb “promised.” (2) Introducing a noun clause serving as subject:That he would run in the elections is much to be desired.” The noun clause “he would run in the elections” is the subject of the verb “is.” (3) Introducing a noun clause serving as predicate nominative: “She was that woman alright.” The noun clause “woman alright” is the predicate nominative of the verb “was.” (A predicate nominative is a noun or pronoun that follows a linking verb to restate or stand for the subject of the sentence.)

In the first sample sentence above, note that the conjunction “that” can be dropped without affecting its meaning: “He promised (that) he would marry her.” Doing the same to the two other sentences, however, renders them meaningless: “(That) he would run in the elections is much to be desired.” “She was (that) woman alright.” A good rule to follow, particularly in formal usage, is to always put and keep the “that” until one has developed a good ear for dropping it. Otherwise, one’s sentences will always be in danger of collapsing semantically.

To introduce a clause of purpose, reason, or result. “Strive hard that you may prosper.” “Love that you may be loved in return.” In this usage, “that” can never be dropped from the sentence.

To introduce an exclamation. “Oh, that my fiancée were with me today!”

The final use of “that” is as an adverb to mean “to such degree or to that extent. “They were that scared they fled.”

And that, if I may say, is all there is to “that.”

This essay, 254th in the series, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the September 1, 2003 issue of The Manila Times, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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