15 December, 2016
From VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.
Today, we are going to explore a mysterious word in English that seems to appear and disappear at will!
"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" -- Casablanca
"Now we don't talk and it's a shame,
I guess I only have myself to blame,
Cos girl you meant so much to me"
-- Plan B
Both of these clips have something in common: they leave out the word "that."
Why did Humphrey Bogart, the main actor in Casablanca, not say, "I think that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"?
Why did Plan B not sing, "I guess that I only have myself to blame"?
In today's Everyday Grammar, we will explore why and when English speakers leave out the word that from a sentence.
That in a noun clause
The word that can have several meanings in the English language.
Sometimes, it can be used to indicate an object or a person, as in the sentence "That man is very nice!"
Other times, the word that is used to introduce a second clause to a sentence. You might hear someone say, "I think that English grammar is difficult!"*
It is this use of that that often confuses English language learners.
Today, we are studying the word that in a noun clause. A clause is a group of words that has a subject and a predicate. In other words, it could stand on its own as a sentence. When a group of words could be a complete sentence, we call it an independent clause.
"I love English grammar" or "I hate English grammar" are two examples of independent clauses that function as complete sentences.
However, sometimes a clause depends on other clauses in a sentence. It cannot stand on its own as a sentence. When this is the case, we say that the clause is dependent.
One type of dependent clause is the that-clause. It acts as a noun in the sentence. It often follows common verbs like think, say, or guess, and all of the verbs that are synonyms of these verbs, like believe, admit, remind, and so on.
Here is an example:
I think that learning English is fun.
In the sentence, the main clause is "I think" and the that-clause gives more information about the main clause.
It is in these types of clauses – clauses that give more information about the main clause - that English speakers often leave out the word that.
One reason that they drop the word that from these sentences is because the word that adds little information.**
So, in a conversation, you are more likely to hear "I think learning English is fun" than "I think that learning English is fun."
What can you do?
There is not really a rule about when to leave out the word that from a that-clause. It is a stylistic choice.
Conrad and Biber are two English grammar experts. They say there are three general characteristics that usually go along with leaving out the word that from a sentence.
Characteristic #1 The verb in the main clause is "say" or "think"
The first characteristic is that the main clause has the verb say or think. So, when a speaker begins a sentence with ‘I think' or ‘he thought' or some other use of 'say,' you are less likely to hear the word that.
This explanation tells you why Humphrey Bogart, in the famous film Casablanca, said, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" instead of "I think that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Characteristic #2 Subject of that-clause is the same as the main clause
The second characteristic of sentences that leave out that is: the subject of the that-clause is the same as the main clause.
This explanation tells you why Plan B sang "I guess I only have myself to blame" instead of "I guess that I only have myself to blame." The subject of the main clause, I, is the same as the subject of the that-clause, I.
Characteristic #3 Subject of that-clause is a personal pronoun
The third characteristic of sentences that leave out that is as follows: the subject of the that-clause is a personal pronoun.
You might hear a teacher say, "I knew he didn't do his homework,"
for example. The subject of the main clause is I, and the subject of the that-clause is the personal pronoun, he.
You Are More Likely to See "That" in Writing
All of these characteristics are less common in writing.
You are more likely to find a complete that-clause in fiction and newspapers, and most likely to find it in academic writing. You are least likely to hear it in conversation.
These characteristics of language can be difficult to learn. However, with time and practice, you will begin to recognize how native speakers leave out parts of the language.
Understanding that words – such as that – are sometimes left out of a sentence will also help you read and understand English better.
I'm John Russell.
And I'm Jill Robbins.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
*We are not discussing relative clauses with "that" in this story.
** In these types of sentences, "that" is acting as an expletive. _____________________________________________________________
Words in This Story
clause – n. a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb
predicate – n. grammar the part of a sentence that expresses what is said about the subject
function – v. to have a specified function, role, or purpose
dependent clause – n. grammar a clause that does not form a simple sentence by itself and that is connected to the main clause of a sentence
drop – v. to not include (someone or something)
characteristic – n. a special quality or trait that makes a person, thing, or group different from others