Resumptive that 1

This is a first posting — more to come — on instances of “double that“, cases in which the complementizer is repeated, as in:

[spoken] I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that if you’re not in love in the middle of February that there’s something wrong with you. [old episode of the television sitcom Will and Grace]

[written] This is akin to arguing that because modern American students are not familiar with the printing conventions used in Shakespeare and Chaucer’s time, that for that reason alone, they’d be cut off from English historical literature. [commenter KYL on Language Log posting “Simplified vs. Complex / Traditional”, 4/24/09]

I’ll call the phenomenon “resumptive that“, because the first that initiates the complement and the second resumes the main clause of the complement after some intervening material.

Laura Staum Casasanto and I have collected a number of such examples. They’re much more common than you might think; people are likely not to notice them, especially if the intervening material is an adverbial subordinate clause (as in the cases above).

There’s some experimental literature (mostly due to Staum (Casasanto) and Ivan Sag) about the role resumptive that plays in language processing, but I’ll put off discussion of that to a later posting. Here my interest is in what the usage advice has had to say about the phenomenon — which is either that the second that is just “unnecessary” (a simple judgment on acceptability) or that it’s at root an inadvertent error resulting from loss of attention (an account of causation). I’ll eventually want to cast some doubt on the inadvertency proposal as an explanation of all instances of resumptive that (while not denying that some instances arise that way), but that too remains for a later posting. Here I’ll just survey some of the advice literature.

(What follows is from material assembled for me by Rachel Cristy two years ago. Thanks to Stanford’s office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.)

1. MWDEU (1989):

that: unnecessarily doubled “when an interrupting element delays the rest of the clause” and the writer forgets having already used it; if the sentence is so long that the reader might have forgotten it, rewrite the sentence (896)

2. Burchfield, New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (“Fowler 3rd. ed.”, 1998):

that (conj.): “interim that in the middle of a long substantival clause that already has a that … : “There is no question that, had the Navy been unhampered…, had traders not…, [that] the war would have ended sooner”; “Is there any man who does not know that, if…, and [that] if…, the party’s position would be improved?” (633)

3. Bernstein, The Careful Writer (1965):

Featherbedding”: the reverse of “Double Duty”; when a writer puts in a word, having forgotten that the same word or an equivalent is already there: “It is clear that, in the judgment of many, that…; “It is better to take a chance on…rather than risk…”(182)

4. Flesch, The ABC of Style (1964):

that: extra that sometimes inserted (often repeated unnecessarily after an intervening subordinate clause or prepositional phrase): “I can’t believe that because I can’t get everything I want, (that) I shouldn’t make a reasonable compromise…” (274)

5. Copperud, American Usage and Style (1980):

that2: often unnecessarily doubled after an interrupting phrase/clause: “hard to realize that as he lives in quiet retirement that a generation is coming…” (376)

6. Garner. Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003):

 that: sometimes repeated unnecessarily after an intervening phrase (784)

One Response to “Resumptive that 1”

  1. Kai von Fintel Says:

    Dear Arnold,

    Roger Higgins has a collection of such cases going back from Modern times to Old English. I think I still have some relevant class handouts from like 20 years ago where he taught us about the phenomenon. I’ll see whether I can dig them up and send them to you.

    — Kai.

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