The word ‘that’ can cause much confusion to English language learners. In language, words are divided into word classes, or what are called ‘Parts of Speech’, and these word classes define the use of a word in a sentence. However, some words fit into more than one word class, and the word ‘that’ is one of these. It has four different uses.

lots of letters

1. Pronoun

An English pronoun is a word used in place of a noun, or noun phrase, especially to avoid repeating the name of a person, place or thing already previously mentioned or understood to be in the context. Pronouns can refer to people, things, places or ideas.

Examples of common pronouns are it, him, her, them, you, me.

  • I really like him.
  • I really like it.

The word ‘that’ is also a pronoun:

  • I really like that.
  • I want that.
  • I need that.

It is apparent that ‘that’ is a regular pronoun in the above examples because it could be replaced with a noun or gerund.

  • I really like tea.
  • I really like fish.
  • I want chocolate.
  • I need water.

2. Relative pronoun

These are the main types of pronouns in English. Pronouns serve a specific purpose in replacing nouns and making sentences more concise and coherent by avoiding repetition of the subject or object of the main clause.

Relative pronouns are used to introduce a relative clause, which is a type of subordinate clause that provides additional information about a noun, noun phrase, pronoun or adjective in the main clause of a sentence.

Relative pronouns connect the relative clause to the main clause and help to join the two together.

  • The book that I borrowed from Sandy is really good.

It is clear that ‘that’ is a relative pronoun in the above sentence because it could also be replaced with another relative pronoun such as ‘which’.

  • The book, which I borrowed from Sandy, is really good.

Here are some further examples of the word ‘that’ being used as a relative pronoun:

  • The book that you lent me was very interesting.
  • The cake that Mary baked for the party was delicious.
  • Is there a restaurant nearby that serves vegan food?
  • The house that we visited yesterday has a beautiful garden.
  • She has a cat that always greets her at the door.
  • The film that won the Oscar last year was badly directed.
  • Do you know anyone that can fix my computer?
  • The project that I’m working on is due next week.
  • The car that he drives is over ten years old.
  • Is there a shop here that sells sporting equipment?

people and things

3. Demonstrative determiner

Another of the nine word classes is the determiner. A noun must always be determined, and there four types of determiner:

Articles: a/ an/ the

Quantifiers: six, some, each, much, many, no, several, etc.

Possessives: my, your, his, their, her, etc.

Demonstratives: this, that, these, those

The following are examples of each in the same sentence:

  • Article: There are the dogs.
  • Quantifier: There are two dogs.
  • Possessive: There are your dogs.
  • Demonstrative: There are those dogs.

‘That’ is a demonstrative determiner.

  • There is that dog.
  • I want to speak to that man.

‘That’ can easily be identified as a demonstrative determiner because it can be replaced with another type of determiner:

  • I want to speak to my man.
  • I want to speak to the man.
  • I want to speak to this man.
  • I want to speak to each man.

Here are some further examples of ‘that’ as a demonstrative determiner:

  • That car is mine.
  • Look at that tree over there.
  • I want that book on the top shelf.
  • Can you pass me that cup, please?
  • That house across the street is for sale.
  • That film we watched last night was really good.
  • I need to buy that shirt in the display window.
  • Please hand me that pen lying on the table.
  • That restaurant on the corner serves amazing pizza.
  • I’m interested in visiting that museum.

4. Conjunction

Conjunctions are a part of speech or word class often described as ‘joining words’, because many conjunctions such as ‘but’ and ‘and’ join words or clauses together to form one sentence. However, not all conjunctions have a joining role but rather function to connect words and/or phrases that are of a related topic or share ideas and belong together in one sentence.

  • He knew that he had to finish his homework before going out with his friends.

When ‘that’ is used as a conjunction, it is what is called a subordinating conjunction, whereas ‘and’ is a coordinating conjunction.

‘And’ joins words and clauses of equal importance.

‘That’ joins a subordinate clause to a main clause to indicate a reason or cause relates to the main clause.

The important thing to remember about the word ‘that’ as a conjunction is that it could be missed or omitted.

  • He knew that he had to finish his homework before going out with his friends.
  • He knew he had to finish his homework before going out with his friends.

Here are some further examples of the word ‘that’ functioning in the role of a conjunction:

  • She said that she would be late for the meeting.
  • He insisted that he had already completed the task.
  • I believe that we should take action immediately.
  • It seems likely that they will win the competition.
  • The doctor warned that smoking can cause health problems.
  • It’s clear that she doesn’t want to go to the party.
  • He mentioned that he had visited Paris last summer.
  • The teacher explained that the exam would be postponed.
  • It’s important that we all contribute to the project.
  • She realised that she had forgotten her keys.

In all of the above examples, the word ‘that’ could be removed without impairing the meaning or logic of the sentence. However, its presence often connects the clauses tidily and removes a possible need for any additional, clarifying punctuation.

dog

Examples of the word ‘that’ being incorrectly used

Here are examples of how some students incorrectly use the word ‘that’:

  • He doesn’t know that where is the library.
  • She asked me that where I am from.
  • I don’t know that what time the film starts.
  • She doesn’t understand that how to solve this problem.
  • He explained that why he was late.
  • We need that to decide that when to meet.

In each of the above examples ‘that’ disturbs the logic of the sentence and can simply be removed. Alternatively, another word could be removed from the sentence to retain the ‘that’.

Taking the example, “He explained that why he was late”, either of the following would suffice:

  • He explained why he was late.
  • He explained that he was late.

However, although both of the above sentences are now grammatically correct, their meanings are rather different.

In summary

The word ‘that’ is frequently inserted into sentences in rather odd locations by English language students. When using the word ‘that’, test it against the following criteria to see if it fits into one of its known categories:

  • Can it be replaced with another pronoun or a noun? Then it is a pronoun. Well done!
  • Can it be replaced with another relative pronoun? Then it is a relative pronoun. Well done!
  • Can it be replaced with another determiner? Then it is a demonstrative determiner. Well done!
  • Can it be omitted without affecting the logic or meaning of the sentence? Then it is either a conjunction or it should not be there at all.

If none of the above four are the case, the word ‘that’ may well have been used inappropriately.

If you have any comments or questions, please do enter them below.

Exercises to practise

Using the Word 'That'

Using the word 'that'

1 / 20

Pass me that plate of biscuits, please.

2 / 20

The dog that barks the loudest usually receives the most attention.

3 / 20

That's the best advice I've received all year.

4 / 20

I want to eat that delicious cake.

5 / 20

The car that he drives is a vintage model.

6 / 20

She mentioned that she might join us for dinner later.

7 / 20

Look at that stunning sunset in the sky.

8 / 20

I didn't know that that was your favourite film.

9 / 20

It's raining so heavily outside that we should stay indoors.

10 / 20

The person that you were talking to is my cousin.

11 / 20

Could you pass me that magazine on the table?

12 / 20

The book that you recommended turned out to be fascinating.

13 / 20

He believed that he could achieve anything with hard work.

14 / 20

The dog that barks the loudest usually gets the most attention.

15 / 20

I need to buy that new phone everyone is talking about.

16 / 20

I told him that I would be there by six o'clock.

17 / 20

The house that we visited yesterday had a beautiful garden.

18 / 20

That is not what I meant when I said "take care".

19 / 20

Pass me that pen over there, please.

20 / 20

She saw something in his eyes that she couldn't quite define.

Your score is

The average score is 98%

0%

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Börjars, Kersti, and others. Introducing English Grammar, 2nd edn (Routledge, 2010)

Burton-Roberts, Noel. Analysing Sentences: An Introduction to English Syntax, 4th edn (Routledge, 2016)

Crystal, David. Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile Books, 2016)

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 3rd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Penguin Random House, 2020)

Gwynne, N. M. Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (Ebury Press/Random House, 2013)

Hewings, Martin, and others. Cambridge English Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Huddleston, Rodney, and others. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Parrott, Martin. Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Pinker, Steven. Words and Rules (W&N/ Science Masters, 2001)

Quirk, Randolph, and others. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, reprint edn (Pearson, 2011)

Seely, John. Oxford A – Z of Grammar & Punctuation (Oxford University Press, 2020)

Trask, R. L. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin Books, 1997)

New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005)

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/

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