The Grammarphobia Blog

Two index fingers pointing

Q: Can you write about “such that”? I assume you’ve seen this recent-seeming locution (at least to me) used in the following way: “She knew the English language very well, such that she wrote a whole book about it.”

A: We often use “such,” followed by a clause starting with “that,” to say something about one thing by referring to something else. As in, “His height was such that he had to have his clothes custom-made.”

Sentences like this sound a bit redundant to the modern ear. Why not “He was so tall that he had to have his clothes custom-made”?

This “such that” construction, according to the grammarian George O. Curme, is evidence of an “older English fondness for double expression,” with “such and that pointing as with two index fingers to the following explanatory clause.”

The word “such” in sentences like these can have either of two meanings:

(1) “of such a kind” (adjective). As in “Her illness was such that she couldn’t work.”

(2) “in such a way” (adverb). As in “She trembled such that she couldn’t work.”

The adjectival construction has been widely used for the last thousand years, right up to the present day. Examples date back to around 1100, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve found them in the 1200s, 1300s, and 1400s, but in most of these the only recognizable words are “such that,” so I won’t bother to quote them!

Here’s a citation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV (1597): “Yea, but our valuation shall be such / That every slight and false-derived cause, / Yea, every idle, nice and wanton reason / Shall the king taste of this action.”

But the adverbial construction has been rarer, and some now consider it incorrect. In the sentence you cite – “She knew the English language very well, such that she wrote a whole book about it” – the “such that” construction is being used in an adverbial way.

In this case, “such that” answers the question “How well did she know English?” The sentence is definitely awkward. Better: “She knew the English language so well that she wrote a whole book about it.” Whether this “such that” usage is grammatically incorrect is a matter of opinion.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accepts the adverbial “such that,” meaning in such a way, giving as an example “related such that each excludes the other.” But the usage panel of The American-Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) rejects this sentence: “The products are packaged such that users can pick the components they need and add capabilities over time. “

I find this adverbial usage so clumsy that the issue of correctness or incorrectness is irrelevant. It puts a great big bulge in the middle of the sentence for no good reason.

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