What Part of Speech Is That?

A word doesn’t necessarily belong to a particular part of speech. Depending on how it is used in a sentence, a word can belong to more than one part of speech. For example, word tomorrow can be an adverb or a noun:

We can meet tomorrow. [Adverb]

Tomorrow’s meeting has been postponed. [Noun]

One of the most ubiquitous words in English language, that evokes little meaning. People think it’s there probably as a dispensable glue. But it’s multifaceted as far as its grammatical functions are concerned. For example, it’s one of the few that introduce all three dependent clauses.

In this post, we’ll analyze the word that grammatically, looking at the four parts of speech it belongs to: pronoun (two types), adjective, adverb, and conjunction. We’ll also look at few parts of speech it doesn’t belong to, but few erroneously think it does. And all this with plenty of examples.

Is that a pronoun?

Yes.

It can function as a demonstrative pronoun. As a demonstrative pronoun, it can occupy subject or object position to point at the person or thing you’re referring to. Examples:

I don’t believe he said that.

That’s the phone I bought two years ago. It’s an old model now.

Note that that can also act as a demonstrative pronoun when it introduces noun clauses (covered later in the post).

That can act as another type of pronoun, relative pronoun, when it introduces relative clauses (covered later in the post).

Is that an adjective?

Yes.

It can function as a demonstrative adjective. As a demonstrative adjective, also known as demonstrative determiner or just determiner, that modifies (or describes) a noun to point out which person or thing is meant. That as demonstrative adjective, unlike that as demonstrative pronoun, is placed immediately before the noun it modifies. Examples:

According to that logic, the company will take 20 percent market share in two years. [That modifies the noun logic, narrowing down the options to a particular logic, and it comes immediately before the noun.]

From where is that noise coming.

Is that an adverb?

Yes.

It can function as an adverb clarifying degree (of an adjective), much like very and so.

The joke isn’t that funny.

The watch doesn’t look that expensive.

Is that a conjunction or subordinating conjunction?

(Note that subordinating conjunction is a subcategory of conjunction. If a word is subordinating conjunction, it’ll certainly be conjunction.)

Yes.

It functions as a conjunction and subordinating conjunction in both adverb and noun clause it introduces. Let’s take this up in detail as there is lot of confusion on this point.

What’s a conjunction?

A conjunction is a part of speech that mainly joins clauses but can also join words or phrases. Whereas coordinating conjunctions join grammatically equal elements, subordinating conjunctions introduce dependent clauses and join them to independent clauses. But to be a conjunction, the word can’t play another grammatical role (noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.) in the clause it introduces. After all, the very same word in the very same sentence can’t be two different parts of speech. Don’t forget that conjunction is one of the eight parts of speech.

There are three types of dependent clauses: adverb clause, relative clause, and noun clause. Here is a summary of whether the connector (we’ll see if it’s a conjunction or not) plays a grammatical role in the clause it introduces.

  1. Adverb clause: No connector joining an adverb clause to an independent clause plays a grammatical role in the adverb clause it introduces. Hence, they’re conjunctions. And because they make the clause dependent (or make it subordinate), they can be subclassified as subordinating conjunctions. Examples: because, since, after, before, while, when, until, etc.
  2. Relative clause: All connectors joining a relative clause to an independent clause play a grammatical role in the relative clause they introduce. (They play the role of pronoun and adverb, which gives these connectors the name relative pronoun and relative adverb.) Hence, they’re not even conjunctions, let alone coordinating or subordinating.
  3. Noun clause: The situation is mixed in noun clauses. Some connectors joining a noun clause to an independent clause play a role in the noun clause they introduce and some don’t. Those that don’t play a role (if, whether, and that) are subordinating conjunctions. Others are not.

You can call connectors that are not subordinating conjunctions as subordinators (even though not conjunction, they subordinate the clause they introduce), which would include relative pronouns, relative adverbs, and other connectors (except if, whether, and that) that introduce noun clauses.

With that out of the way, let’s come back to whether that is a conjunction or a subordinating conjunction. Now, that introduces all three types of dependent clauses: adverb clause, relative clause, and noun clause.

Let’s take adverb clause first. Examples:

Majority of people work so that they can pay their bills. [The adverb clause has been underlined.]

Few countries developed nuclear weapons so that they can be used as a deterrent against attack.

As discussed earlier (see first bullet point under ‘adverb clause’ heading), connectors don’t play a grammatical role in the adverb clause they introduce. Hence, they’re conjunctions. And because they make the clause dependent (or make it subordinate), they can be subclassified as subordinating conjunctions.

Let’s take noun clause now. Examples:

Reports suggest that he had an overdose of drugs. [The noun clause has been underlined.]

They clearly understand that a lean agreement is better than a fat lawsuit.

As discussed earlier, that doesn’t play a grammatical role in the noun clause it introduces (see third bullet point under ‘noun clause’ heading). Hence, that is a conjunction when introducing a noun clause, and because it makes the clause dependent (or makes it subordinate), it can be subclassified as subordinating conjunction.

Bottomline, that is a subordinating conjunction in adverb and noun clauses.

Is that a relative pronoun?

Yes.

It can function as a relative pronoun. A relative pronoun, if you recall, joins one part of a sentence to another by referring to a noun. It introduces relative clause, which gives more information about the noun referred to. Examples:

Such breaks can help us detect slow poison that creeps into our personal and professional lives and take corrective steps. [The relative clause has been underlined.]

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Note that in all the examples, that refers to the noun phrase immediately before it. And because it refers to a noun, it’s a pronoun.

Common error: People sometimes call that a subordinating conjunction in its role as introducer of a relative clause. But that, in this role, is a relative pronoun.

Is that a preposition?

No.

Few confuse that with prepositions mainly because both connect two parts of a sentence and both can precede a noun or pronoun. A case in point:

Researchers have found among different strains of the virus a potentially fast-spreading one.

Researchers have found that the virus can spread through the air, potentially threatening millions.

The finding that the virus spreads through air hasn’t come as a surprise.

In all the three sentences, among and that connect two parts of the sentence and are followed by a noun or noun phrase. If among is a preposition, then why isn’t that.

Looking at only the succeeding noun or noun phrase, though, doesn’t present a holistic picture. This does:

Researchers have found among different strains of the virus a potentially fast-spreading one.

Researchers have found that the virus can spread through the air, potentially threatening millions.

The finding that the virus spreads through air hasn’t come as a surprise.

In the second sentence, the noun clause introduced by that works as a unit. In other words, that doesn’t come with just the noun phrase the virus but lot more, a clause. Same with the third sentence, where a relative clause works as a unit, and here too that can’t be seen with just the following noun.

From the above examples, you’d realize that mere presence of a noun or noun phrase after a word doesn’t mean it’s a preposition. Adjectives can be followed by a noun or noun phrase. So can others be. But we’ve to look at the holistic picture.

Bottomline, that is not a preposition. And because it’s not a preposition, it can’t initiate a prepositional phrase.

Is that a verb?

Although rarely, some raise question about that being a verb.

Is it a verb? Not even remotely!

We can sing. We can dance. We can eat. We can move.

But can we that?

That doesn’t do any action. Hence, it’s not a verb.

Another test you can run is to check if that has past, past participle, and present participle forms like verbs do.

Can we’ve the words thated or thating, assuming it to be a regular verb?

No. Hence, it’s not a verb.

Few also confuse that with linking verb probably because of its role in linking (or joining) a dependent clause to an independent clause. But it’s not a linking verb. As we saw earlier, that acts as a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun in its role in linking a dependent clause to an independent clause.

Summary

That mainly functions as a pronoun and a subordinating conjunction, but it can play few other roles as well:

The holiday season has started on a slow note. That should worry the corporations and the investors. [Demonstrative pronoun]

For that reason alone, we shouldn’t invest here. [Demonstrative adjective]

The sales in the holiday season weren’t that bad. [Adverb]

Businesses offered attractive discounts so that they could attract buyers in what was proving to be a not-so-good season. [Subordinating conjunction in adverb clause]

Early trends indicate that this holiday season would be lukewarm. [Subordinating conjunction in noun clause]

I was upset with some of the things that transpired in the meeting. [Relative pronoun in relative clause]

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