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That Using ‘that’ Makes You Sound “Not Smart” Is Wrong

That Using 'that' Makes You Sound "Not Smart" Is Wrong

Whenever I come across a post about “words to avoid,” I audibly groan. Such posts are prescriptivist attempts to impose more arbitrary rules on language use. I recently saw a post in my Facebook feed about “words to avoid to sound smarter.” One suggestion was to avoid the word that. The post claimed that that is “superfluous most of the time.” That suggestion fails to distinguish the different forms of that: determiner, pronoun, relativizer, and complementizer.

Determiners are a closed class of words that provide non-attributive information such as definiteness, familiarity, location, quantity, number, and possession about a nominal form. That is a demonstrative determiner. Demonstrative determiners provide additional information about the proximity of a nominal form. (The other three demonstrative determiners are this, these, and those.) For example:

  • Hand me that spoon.
  • That book goes on the top shelf.
  • That child needs to stop screaming.

Pronouns are proforms that take the place of nouns or other nominal forms. That is also a demonstrative pronoun. Like demonstrative determiners, demonstrative pronouns provide additional information about the proximity of an antecedent. Demonstrative pronouns and demonstrative determiners are related but distinct forms. For example:

  • That was weird!
  • Did you hear that?
  • That sounds like a huge problem.

Relativizers and complementizers are subordinating conjunctions. Relativizers introduce adjective clauses. Complementizers introduce noun clauses. Both types of subordinating conjunctions also perform additional functions within adjective and noun clauses. That is both a relativizer and a complementizer. For example:

  • Mine is the computer that crashed. (relativizer)
  • The building that burned was historic. (relativizer)
  • That the museum closed early upsets me. (complementizer)

Sometimes an overt that can be omitted. But not always. Only in specific functions can the null relativizer or null complementizer replace relativizer or complementizer that. Determiner and pronoun that can never be removed or replaced without changing the meaning. For example:

  • That soup smells good. -> *Soup smells good. (determiner)
  • That smells good. -> *Smells good. (pronoun)
  • That is the chair that broke. -> *Is the chair broke. (pronoun, relativizer)
  • That the internet went out upsets me. -> *The internet went out upsets me. (complementizer)

Removing determiner or pronoun that from the above sentences (and from any sentence) results in an ungrammatical construction in English. Determiner and pronoun that can be replaced by another determiner or pronoun, but the meaning of the utterance changes.

  • That soup smells good. -> The soup smells good.
  • That smells good. -> It smells good.

The soup smells good does not convey the exact same meaning as That soup smells good. It smells good likewise dose not convey the same meaning as That smells good. While similar, removing the demonstrative removes the expression of proximity from both sentences. Neither that is superfluous.

Relativizer and complementizer that can be removed (or rather replaced by the null relativizer or complementizer) in specific contexts. Only (1) when the relativizer or complementizer that does not function as a subject of the adjective or noun clause and (2) the noun clause is not the subject of the main clause can the null relativizer or complementizer replace the that.

  • The chair that broke was an antique. -> *The chair broke was an antique.
  • That the chair broke saddened me. -> *The chair broke saddened me.

In The chair that broke was an antique, the that is a relativizer that functions as the subject of the adjective clause that broke. The null relativizer cannot function as the subject of an adjective clause. The that is not replaceable or superfluous.

In That the chair broke saddened me, the that is a complementizer that functions as a subordinator of the noun clause that the chair broke. Subordinator that can be replaced by the null complementizer — but only in certain contexts. The noun clause that the chair broke functions as the subject of the sentence That the chair broke saddened me. When a noun clause like that the chair broke functions as a subject, the null complementizer cannot introduce the noun clause. The that is again not replaceable or superfluous.

The null relativizer or complementizer can replace relativizer or complementizer that in certain contexts. The subordinating conjunction cannot function as the subject of the dependent clause, and the noun clause cannot function as the subject of the sentence. For example:

  • I know that he called. -> I know he called.
  • I read the book that you recommended. -> I read the book you recommended.

In I know that he called, the noun clause that he called functions as the direct object of the sentence. Complementizer that functions as the subordinator of the noun clause. Thus, the that can be replaced by the null complementizer.

In I read the book that you recommended, the adjective clause that you recommended modifies the noun book. Relativizer that functions as the direct object of the adjective clause. Again, the that can be replaced by the null relativizer.

Furthermore, sometimes relativizer and complementizer that add emphasis even when the that can be replaced by the null form. For example:

  • She said she would come.
  • She said that she would come.

Both sentences express the same proposition. The first sentence contains the noun clause she would come, which contains the null complementizer. The second sentence contains the noun clause that she would come, which contains the overt complementizer that. Now read both sentences aloud but emphasize the that in the second sentence. Is the that as superfluous as the prescriptive rule for avoiding that claims?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the overt relativizer or complementizer that in adjective and noun clauses. Avoiding that does not make you sound smarter because the proscription fails to distinguish the different forms of that: determiner, pronoun, relativizer, and complementizer. Removing determiner or pronoun that results in ungrammatical constructions. Replacing determiner or pronoun that changes the meaning of the utterance. If someone tells you to avoid that to sound smarter, know that that blanket statement about avoiding that is wrong.

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