The Grammarphobia Blog

Get me rewrite!

Q: I am wondering if this sentence is grammatically correct and clear: “After touching his cloak, that her hands were still trembling, her nights no shorter hurt a little.”  

A: That sentence isn’t grammatically incorrect, but it’s certainly unclear. Let’s call it overly literary. A reader shouldn’t have to read a sentence twice (or three times) to get the meaning.

The word “that” is a conjunction here. It introduces the subordinate clause that’s the subject of the sentence.

The verb is “hurt,” and the subject of the verb is the clause “that her hands were still trembling, her nights no shorter.”

The sentence is hard to read because in this kind of construction, the verb isn’t generally left until the end.

Here’s a rephrasing that makes things a bit clearer: “After touching his cloak, it hurt a little that her hands were still trembling, her nights no shorter.”

That rewording inserts “it” as an anticipatory “dummy” subject. The logical subject is still “that her hands were still trembling, her nights no shorter.”

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about subordinate clauses introduced by “that”:

“The subord. clause as subject is most commonly placed after the verb and introduced by a preceding it, e.g. ‘it is certain that he was there’ = ‘that he was there, is certain.’ ”

We recently wrote a post that referred to a similar construction: the use of “it” as a dummy subject when the logical subject is an infinitive.

Example: “It was futile to resist his manly charms.” (Without the dummy subject: “To resist his manly charms was futile.”)

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