Q: A friend says “that” is incorrect in this sentence: “Leonardo DiCaprio’s never winning an Oscar isn’t that surprising when you realize Stanley Kubrick never won one either.” I say it’s an informal usage. We thought why not ask you guys.
A: Some language authorities would agree with you that this use of “that” (especially the negative “not that”) is informal, but we see nothing wrong with using it in formal as well as informal contexts.
Film buffs, however, would object to the sentence you’re asking about: Kubrick did win an Oscar—for visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In your example, the adjective “unfair” is qualified by “that.” In this construction, “that” is a demonstrative adverb meaning “so much,” “so,” or “to that extent or degree,” a usage the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the 1400s.
Oxford adds that the negative version “not that”—the version in your sentence, with “not” contracted—is a colloquial usage that means “not very.” (A colloquial usage is one that’s more common in spoken than in written English.)
Among the OED’s citations are both positive and negative examples, including these:
“Charles Paris found it difficult to get that excited.” (From Simon Brett’s 1980 novel The Dead Side of the Mike.)
“The forgiveness of sin isn’t just an easygoing matter, as if to say: ‘Well, you sinned, but it doesn’t matter all that much—I forgive you.’ ” (From a 1981 issue of the Listener.)
As we’ve said above, we think this usage, negative as well as positive, is acceptable in all kinds of English. To be fair, we’ll give you two additional views on the subject.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) would say we’re jumping the gun. It describes the usage as still informal, though close to becoming formal.
Fowler’s says constructions with “that” as a demonstrative adverb of “the type ‘I was that angry,’ i.e. ‘so angry, very angry,’ and its negative counterpart, ‘things aren’t really that bad,’ have been slipping into and out of standard use since similar uses were first recorded in the 15c.”
“It would seem that both the positive and the negative types are common now,” Fowler’s says, “but in the written language are normally used in plainly informal contexts.”
The usage guide gives these published examples of informal use, both positive and negative: “I’ve been that worried. I thought I’d lost you,” and “Shut up. … It’s not that funny.”
But the manual acknowledges that all this “is only a short step away from reasonably formal territory, to judge from the following example: ‘The questioning attitude that comes naturally at student age is not that easily abolished.’ ”
Another authoritative source, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, says both uses of “that”—positive as well as negative—are “common and widespread.”
But the “most common current use,” the book adds, “is in negative statements in which that is reduced more or less to an intensifier.”
The book’s published examples include sentences like these: “It is not that easy” … “The movie is different, but not that different” … “He did not think that they were that close to a treaty.”
M-W concludes that this use of “that,” in both positive and negative constructions, is “standard in general prose.”