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Optional “that” vs. obligatory “that”

Home » Educational modules » The SAP » Optional “that” vs. obligatory “that”

Introduction

This post highlights the use of that as a function word, which refers to what a word does as opposed to what it looks like (its of part of speech). Determining when that is optional versus when it is obligatory is a function of being concise and constructing semantically sound material. Below is an example of a direct speech from an online article that illustrates the importance of making such a determination:

I remember one point [Gayle King] said, “Don’t you just miss being around other people?”

—Oprah Winfrey

Parsing for grammatical function

Which of the following is the correct parse?

  1. I remember [(that)] (at) one point Gayle King said
  2. I remember one point [(that)] Gayle King said

The first parse, which is correct, brings focus to the use of that as a complementizer, which turns the statement immediately after the main verb of the clause into an object (I remember [insert the sentence OBJECT here]). As illustrated in these examples, that could be placed in two different positions, which themselves are responsible for identifying the grammatical function of that.

Thus, what we are attempting to determine via parsing is what that as a function word does or the role that it plays. Therefore, the position of that in the arrangement of the sentence is a function of its syntactic function (the relationship to its constituent).

The second parse highlights that as a relativizer. I consider the following statement to be the best way to describe what a relativizer is. According to John Lawler, “Every relative clause contains an anaphor of its antecedent.” What the statement means is that that as a relativizer in a matrix clause is also an anaphor [1]An anaphora is “The relation between a pronoun and its antecedent is called anaphora”: HUDDLESTON, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2005). Relative Clauses. In A Student’s Introduction … Continue reading, which points to its antecedent (a preceding noun/noun phrase or pronoun) that is the grammatical subject or object of an embedded clause (also called a subordinate clause). This structure, known as a complex NP, is illustrated via the example below. [2]You may gain a deeper understanding of relativization via the principle of the Complex NP Constraint as explained in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics.

Analysis

In our two example parses above, the second is interpreted as a relative clause. (Note that the complex NP comes in two types: the relative clause and the NP complement.) Here is the second example again. However, an underscore (_) is used to represent something linguists call a filler-gap dependency. It refers to where the antecedent of that belongs in the embedded clause within the sentence.

I remember one point [(that)] Gayle King said_

However, this interpretation is unfortunate because here we can observe that such a parse does not yield to the semantics of the rest of the entire (original) sentence under consideration. Yet the reader could only come to this conclusion only after reading up to the comma (I remember one point [Gayle King] said,).

This outcome is called a “garden path” sentence, which you could read more about by following the link and going to the heading “Lack of proper clause-compounding that leads to parsing issues.” It forces the reader to backtrack to parse the sentence correctly, an outcome that would logically yield, as already illustrated, that the speaker, Oprah Winfrey, meant, or meant to say, the following:

I remember that (at) one point Gayle King said, “Don’t you just miss being around other people?”

Conclusion

Rather than potentially confuse your reader, pay attention to grammatical function. That as a function word can be absolutely essential to satisfy the requirements for syntax and/or semantics. Therefore, determining when that is obligatory or when it is optional (in which case it is called a zero relative pronoun) should be driven by the author’s desire to be concise and construct semantically sound material.

References

References
1 An anaphora is The relation between a pronoun and its antecedent is called anaphora”: HUDDLESTON, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2005). Relative Clauses. In A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar (p. 183). essay, Cambridge University Press.
2 You may gain a deeper understanding of relativization via the principle of the Complex NP Constraint as explained in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics.
Garie McIntosh
Garie McIntosh
Garie started out in administration in the fields of healthcare, project management and database development. Since 2016, he has been working to further develop himself as a fiction writer while working on his English grammatical and linguistic pursuits. One aspect of his career that he focuses on is to write novels and educate others on the effective use of English in literary manuscripts. The objective of this focus is to make the elements and tools of his own success available through the educational and grammatical linguistic material that he produces. Garie is now a fiction writer and a grammar enthusiast. He has developed teaching and educational methods, editing products and publishing solutions that help writers meet traditional publishing standards. He created the business and modelled it to meet a personal need that became apparent to him while he studied writing and narratology. His first novel, What’s in a Name, and two other books to be published will form a series of inter-related novels in a thematic trilogy called The Barred-Spiral Trilogy. Google knowledge panel

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