The Grammarphobia Blog

That’s all, folks!

Q: In the past few weeks, I’ve heard TV anchors refer to Edward Snowden as being in “that transit lounge” and in “that Moscow airport.” The use of “that” instead of “the” sounds odd to my ear. Is this a trend? A coincidence? Or maybe some journalistic usage? Perhaps anchors have always spoken this way and I never noticed.

A: This isn’t a new usage, though it seems to have become popular lately among TV anchors or commentators trying to convey a casual, familiar tone on the air. 

An anchor who uses “that” instead of an article—as in “that transit lounge” instead of “the transit lounge” or “a transit lounge”—assumes the audience knows the story already.

The use of “that” here implies the transit lounge has been mentioned before, and suggests the anchor and the audience have just been discussing it.

Everybody’s on the same page—or that’s the assumption—and the listener won’t respond by thinking, “What transit lounge? What Moscow airport? What’s this person talking about?”

As you can see, this use of “that” conveys a looser, more familiar tone than would be appropriate in straight news coverage—especially in newspaper reporting, where a professional distance is generally maintained between journalist and reader.

But network anchors, as well as many broadcast and print commentators, allow themselves a more personal tone.

In constructions like “that transit lounge” and “that Moscow airport,” the word “that” is a demonstrative adjective.

In explaining the use of “that” in such constructions, the Oxford English Dictionary says the demonstrative adjective is being used “in concord with a n. which is the antecedent to a relative (expressed or understood).”

In plain English, this means “that” is being used with a noun to introduce a relative clause that’s actually present (“that transit lounge, which we were just talking about”) or merely understood (“that transit lounge”).

The OED says the use of “that” in such constructions is “often interchangeable with the … but usually more emphatic.”

In a 1532 Oxford’ citation for this usage, Thomas More illustrates how “that” may be more emphatic than “the” by contrasting two examples:

“A manne may saye ‘the man that we spake of was here,’ or ‘that man that we spake of was here.’ ”

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