The Queens English
That is the Question
24th June 2011
“To be or not to be/That is the question” or so said Shakespeare's Hamlet. This quotation shows one of the uses of the word 'that' - as a determiner.
The question I will answer here, is: “When is the word 'that' used? When are 'which', 'who', 'whose' and 'this' used?
That is a pronoun, and here is a guide to using it.
1. That as a determiner .
The baby sits in his high chair. He is learning to talk, but he isn't there yet. He is ,looking at an open cupboard, and he wants something he can see on the bottom shelf. His mother asks him a question.
“What do you want? Do you want a biscuit? Which kind?”
“That!” he answers triumphantly. He's pointing. Unfortunately his mother still has to guess, as he could be pointing at any one of two or three different kinds...
So, “that” is being used as an answer to the question “which one?”. What Hamlet meant was, that his question was whether it was better to be (alive) or to not be (to be dead.)
However sometimes the answer to the question is not 'that one', but 'this one'. That is the word used
when we're talking about something distant, even if only by a metre, as far as an open kitchen cupboard is from a 10 month old baby in a high chair.
Another child is 5 years old. She's upset, and she's crying with frustration. Her mother comes into the living room, where the child was colouring in a picture her teacher had given her, of a farm yard.
The mother asks “What's the problem, Susan?”
“The dog took my pencil and she chewed it, and slobbered all over it!”
Susan holds up an orange colouring pencil. The end of it resembles a paintbrush.
That as a determiner (also this, who and which) are also used in relative clauses. Again, they answer the question - which woman, which house, which job are you talking about?
• The woman, who lives across the road from the school, is the principal.
• The house, which had been on the market since 2007, has finally been sold for $900,000!
• I left my job, in which I was a supermarket check out operator, when I decided to move to Wellington.
• One of my coffee cups, this red one here, got broken when I was out last night. Can any of you explain how that happened?
That, and which are never used to refer to people, but instead, to things and people, and usually animals (except sometimes pets). For people and for domestic animals as can be seen in the first example, 'who' must be
• The sheep, which had been grazing on swampy land, were found to have foot rot, and could not be cured.
• The doctor, who had immigrated from Sri Lanka, had been working as a taxi driver until his qualifications were recognised and he joined the staff of our laboratory.
• I took my cat, who was coughing all day and all night, to see the vet.
You can see that the relative clause (the one between commas) can be removed, and still leave a complete sentence. Its only purpose is to clarify to the listener exactly what is being discussed.
There are rules about when to use 'that' and when to use 'which', but as these rules are somewhat
old-fashioned, I don't think they're important for you to know. But in case you do, visit this site:
“In the first one, the clause “that is painted pink” is a restrictive clause, because it limits the scope of the word “house”, indicating that the writer doesn’t mean any house, only the one that has been painted in that particular colour; if he takes that clause out, all that’s left is "The house has just been
sold": the reader no longer knows which house is being referred to and the sentence loses some crucial information. In the second example the clause is non-restrictive: the writer is giving additional information about a house he’s describing; the clause "which is painted pink" is here parenthetical — the writer is saying “by the way, the house is painted pink” as an additional bit of
information that’s not essential to the meaning and could be taken out”
“Older grammar books make two firm points about the difference between the two types of clause:
• Restrictive clauses are introduced by that and are not separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.
• Non-restrictive clauses are introduced by which and must be separated by commas from the rest of the sentence to indicate parenthesis”
2. That as an intensifier.
This use is pretty informal, but it does exist. For instance, I used it this morning, when listening to the radio, and hearing an interview with a singer. Something she said made me exclaim
“Is she really that arrogant?”
You probably won't find that usage in grammar books, but you will hear people using it.
3. That used to introduce quoted speech.
"Lisa Algurri from Wellington Zoo, said that the penguin would be operated on tomorrow to see whether it had an obstruction in its stomach".
(This usage is not acceptable in American English, but then this blog is not about American English, so that's not a problem is it?)