The Grammarphobia Blog

“That” tricks

Q: Pat’s discussion of “that that” on WNYC reminded me of a classic sentence—I forget who originated it—with five consecutive appearances of “that”: “I told him that that ‘that’ that that editor had deleted, was not that ‘that’ that I had marked.”

A: We think that that “that” sentence is pretty ingenious!

It reminds us of a punctuation puzzle popularized by Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keys’s 1966 science fiction novel, and Charly, a 1968 movie based on it:

that that is is that that is not is not is that it it is

Here’s one solution: That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.

We wrote a blog post a few years ago about the sometimes optional use of “that,” but you’ve inspired us to be expansive here and write about “that” in its many guises.

The word “that” is very old. It appears in Beowulf, which may be as old as the early or mid-700s.

(And incidentally, “that” is much older than “who,” and contrary to popular opinion it’s quite legitimate to use “that” to refer to a person, as we’ve written before on the blog.)

“That” has many functions in English. So let’s do a “that” roundup.

Demonstrative pronoun. Here, “that” can refer to a thing, a person, a fact or circumstance, and so on. Examples: “That was excellent” … “That’s a good boy!” … “That’s the question” … “After that, we went to bed” … “Take that!” … “Is that so?” … “That’s him all over.”

Demonstrative adjective. Here, “that” can modify a word for a person, a thing, a time, and so on. Examples: “That boy will be the death of me” … “I’ve never forgotten that one” … “Where’s that money you owe me?” … “By that time she was gone.”

Demonstrative adverb. Here, “that” means “to that extent or degree.” Examples: “It’s not that cold” … “I’ve known him since he was that high.”

Relative pronoun. Here, “that” refers to or adds to something already mentioned. It can introduce a clause or be the object of a preposition.  “Is this all that you have to say?” … “The dress that she wants is red” … “It’s a fact that you can’t deny” … “Pittsburgh is the town that he came from” … “Fool that I was!”

Conjunction. Here, “that” introduces a clause that’s dependent on the main clause. Examples: “I was certain that she’d gone” … “It was for this that I studied” … “We had hoped that you would stay” … “It was so cold that I had to come inside” … “I said that I was sorry.”

With those last two usages—relative pronoun and conjunction—it’s often hard to tell which is which. And in both of them, the use of “that” is sometimes optional.

A final note: Like any other word, “that” can be a noun if it refers to the word itself, as in “Is ‘that’ the right word here?”

Now let’s go back to your original sentence: “I told him that that ‘that’ that that editor had deleted was not that ‘that’ that I had marked.”

It has eight examples of “that,” which we’ll identify in order of appearance.

(1) Conjunction; (2) demonstrative adjective; (3) noun; (4) relative pronoun; (5) demonstrative adjective; (6) demonstrative adjective; (7) noun; 8) relative pronoun.

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