That That

Some words in English will bedevil the best of us, and one such is that. Grammarians use a device called the parts of speech to organize how words are used in a sentence: as a noun or verb, for example—traditionally eight different ways in all. The scheme allows us to quickly analyze a sentence (and you might even apply it right here in questioning whether or not the adverb quickly should have just split the infinitive to analyze); with it we can estimate our work, confidently change things around if we need to (the adverb quickly does not necessarily need to be moved), and continue on happily with our lives.

And we need travel no further than the word that to see how effective this grammatical tool can be. We tend to assume from our school days that each word is assigned one particular part of speech. Action word? Verb. Person, place, or thing? Noun. Many, many words though (can we say most?) play a number of grammatical roles, depending upon the sentence that calls them to the stage. That can’t seem to say no to a role, and shows up as no fewer than four different parts of speech, one of them, the pronoun, even requiring a costume change. Let’s see if we can sort this all out.

If I want you to see that beautiful bird over there, the word that is an adjective; it is specifying an object in our field of vision, the bird, and in doing so it is limiting where your attention can go for the moment. Specifying, or limiting, is the central function of an adjective, as is describing. To describe is one way to specify, and so we should note that the word beautiful is also an adjective here to the noun bird. Now if you reply, I’ve never seen a bird that beautiful, the word that has dropped the role of adjective and is now playing the adverb, a word that modifies an adjective. Adverbs express degree, and so a bird that beautiful means a bird beautiful to such an extent.

And the drama continues. If I next shake my head in wonder and say, that is really something, the word that has now stepped into the role of pronoun. Pronouns refer to nouns, standing in for them to avoid the tedium of seeing the same noun over and over again, so that is really something means either that bird is really something, or the very fact of having suddenly come upon and having seen such a beautiful thing is really something. Either way, I would be making reference to something, trying to point something out, and so the word that would now be serving as a demonstrative adjective. And if you in turn replied, the bird that we saw yesterday was not as colorful as this one, the stage-hungry that has changed its costume from demonstrative pronoun to relative pronoun: it still refers to bird, of course, but now it begins an entirely new clause, standing there showily in the next scene as the object of saw.

And finally, thankfully, only one more role for this character. If in my astonishment at such beauty and perhaps too a little overwrought, I sigh and say, I thought that I would never see such a thing, what has been an adjective and adverb and even two kinds of pronouns now plays its swan song as a conjunction, joining the two clauses I thought and I would never see such a thing. It’s been quite a career.

The most important observation we can make after all these performances is that words function according to their context. Not all words, of course, can play all roles, but those parts they can act are determined by the play they find themselves in. So as is ever the case with analysis, we proceed methodically, first identifying the word (or phrase or clause) we want to examine, and then determining what it is doing grammatically in that particular instance, guided in our analysis by the parts of speech. And that’s that.


Upcoming Seminar

Questions and Answers
Tuesday, November 24
7:00 to 8:00 p.m. CT

Writing Smartly’s next seminar, Questions and Answers, will address your questions about grammar, punctuation, and sentence construction—any question about writing that has been perplexing you and about which you can’t easily find an answer. Who or whom? Semicolons? Tenses? Which or that? Passive voice? Colons, clauses, or commas? Email one or two specific questions to by Sunday, November 22, and I will prepare a handout explaining as many as I can in our one-hour seminar. Join us even if you don’t have a question—there’s always something to learn. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25.



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  1. My mother taught me this: “The teacher said that that that that that teacher used was superfluous.”

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