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“That that” in Sentence Construction

“That that” in Sentence Construction

Have you ever wondered why and how on earth can a word be flanked with its identical twin in a sentence?

If you’ve questioned whether or not this type of phrasal construction is grammatically-correct, then you must be a grammar stickler!

Kidding aside, if you’ve landed on this post searching for some answers, then that means you have profound linguistic competency.

Let’s take a closer look to find out more about the double-word construction “that that” in the arbitrary world of languages.



Is “that that” grammatically correct?

Albeit oddly awkward, the usage of “that that” or the “double that” in sentence construction is grammatically correct. The first “that” syntactically functions as subordinating conjunction that links a dependent clause in a complex sentence. The second “that,” however, may function as a demonstrative pronoun, an adjective, or an adverb depending on the intent of the writer. This type of grammatical usage easily prompts misinterpretation from non-native English learners, and it could also readily invite criticisms from grammar pedants. Thus, “that that” should only be cautiously applied in colloquial discourse


The different faces of “that”

To understand how “that that” is formed, it is essential to know which particular word categories the word “that” belongs to.

“That” wears several cloaks and may thereby fall under four different parts of speech in English.

It can either be used as subordinating conjunction in forming complex sentences, or a demonstrative pronoun in replacing a singular noun located far from the language user.

Additionally, it may also be used as an adjective or determiner to refer to an entity pointed out by a speaker or an idea mentioned beforehand.

Lastly, it may also be used as an adverb of degree to indefinitely modify the subjective intensity of a verb, adjective, or another adverb.


That, the conjunction

Several types of conjunctions exist which have coordinating, subordinating, correlating, or adverbial functions.

“That” belongs to the type with a subordinating function that securely holds what we syntactically refer to as “complex sentences.”

A complex sentence is composed of at least one independent clause, an idea that can stand alone, and at least one dependent clause.

These clauses are tethered by any subordinating conjunction, including although, unless, or that.

She has confessed that she was responsible for what happened.

“She has confessed” is the independent clause while the succeeding words constitute the dependent or the subordinate clause.

The job of the conjunction “that” is to link the dependent idea to the main clause so as to give further information of what the subject has done.

In colloquial discourse, it is possible to leave out the conjunction “that,” but this omission is not recommended in a rather formalistic circumstance.

It is also essential to note that no comma is placed before or after “that” when the independent clause introduces the sentence.


That: the demonstrative pronoun

Another role “that” could play is to demonstrate the distant space occupied by singular nouns, with respect to the speaker or writer’s point of view.

This word category is known as “demonstrative pronouns” whose three other main examples are this, these, and those.

These words are also linguistically called spatial deictic expressions wherein the entity referred to may only be adjudicated when background context is provided.

Furthermore, it means that it would be difficult to recognize the exact entity replaced by “that” without any other details mentioned.

That is mine and this is yours.

Obviously enough, the writer may add other relevant details to better elaborate the intended meaning. 

This may be done by adding a noun after “that” which transforms its function into an adjective.


That: the adjective

Knowing the adjectival function of “that” is relatively simple.

It only needs to be followed by a noun or a noun phrase in the sentence construction.

Using “that” as an adjective, more specifically called a determiner, entails an adjacent noun in which its premodification function is intended for.

The job of determiners is to “determine” the quantities of nouns or to particularize what the noun refers to, hence the name.

Some of the most common determiners are my, your, many, more, this, these, a, an, and the.

Here’s an example to illustrate the explanation given.

Can you hand me that file, please?

“That” modifies the noun “file” which informs the reader or hearer which exact item is being referred to.

The modifying power of the adjective “that” may also be done with any animate nouns such as a person or an animal.

That guy was her ex-fiancé.

Apparently, it can also refer to inanimate entities such as time, place, or abstract concepts that are previously stated or known.

The managing director has approved that design concept you proposed last week.

To additionally note and to end this subsection, adjectives modifying nouns do not necessitate any adjacent comma placement as well, which is similar to the previous categories.



That, the adverb

The last mask the word “that” could wear is the one that contains the adverbial sense.

“That” can be used as an adverb of degree which elicits an indefinitely huge extent or intensity of a modified word that is contextually-dependent.

Adverbs of degree or intensifiers aid the enrichment or emphasis of the word being modified which may include verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.

The joke isn’t that hilarious.

“That” in the example sentence above, and other contexts as well, is closest to either “very” or “really.”

The usage of degree adverbs implies increased linguistic competence as this part of speech is relatively more complex than nouns and verbs.

It also further implies that the language user has already achieved the capability to evaluate, qualify, and express abstract information which is highly subjective.


In which particular sentence patterns can we use “that that”?

Since all the basics have been covered, understanding this section should be effortless, even more like shooting fish in a barrel.

As quickly explained earlier, the first “that” functions as conjunction while the second functions either as a pronoun, a determiner, or an adverb.

More often than not, the second “that” likely falls under the pronoun and determiner categories, as opposed to an adverb.

Read on to find out these nuances in detail.


“That that” in a conjunction-pronoun structure

We can utilize this particular sentence format by starting with an independent clause that is grammatically complete yet pragmatically obscure.

I have already told you.

Now, let’s look at another clause without the presence of any conjunctive device.

That is not mine!

If we want to combine the two ideas in one sentence, we can unite them using the conjunction “that,” thereby forming the next sentence.

I have already told you that that is not mine!

The second “that” is a pronominal replacement of an entity that is indiscernible without further background context.

To understand the sentence further, we need to add further information after the second “that” meanwhile transforming its function into a determiner.

Is "that that" grammatically correct_


“That that” in a conjunction-determiner structure

Taking the same example above, we can further specify the object being referred to by adding a noun after the second “that.”

I have already told you that that phone is not mine!

With the additional noun, we can conveniently deduce that the speaker is referring to a phone located somewhere at a distance.

Again, the reference point is relative to the speaker’s point of view, so it is not logically possible to know the exact distance of the object.

Therefore, the phone could be physically in the speaker’s location, or it might be physically proximal to the second interlocutor’s space.

Put simply, the speaker could be talking to an actual person in the same area to someone over the phone or the internet.

Ergo, although this type of sentence construction is well-formed, background context is nonetheless viable in comprehending this type of sentence appropriately.


“That that” in a conjunction-adverb structure

The third possible way wherein the “double that” is applicable is the conjunction-adverb format.

As mentioned beforehand, this specific structure is not frequently observable.

In particular, the second clause is a result of an inverted sentence structure that is deliberately done to create a more emphatic effect.

Sentential inversion draws more focus on the predicate that comes before the subject.

This is done when the writer is more interested in concentrating the message on the predicative part as opposed to the subject.

Note, though, that this special sentence construction is more formalistic and literary per se.

Caution, therefore, is advised when choosing this structure in writing.

Here’s one last example to demonstrate what has been elaborated at length.

I have already told you that that much was all I could ever do.

Again, the sentence may sound awkward, albeit adage-like, hence must only be used sparingly.



No matter how awkward the expression may sound, the beauty of the English language is represented by the arbitrariness of the “double that” usage.

This linguistic phenomenon also elucidates the salience of sentence construction altogether with context and meaning.

Hence, the integrated function of syntax, morphology, semantics, and pragmatics is nevertheless essential in elaborating language use.