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Have you ever had a case where you felt compelled to include strange things like a double that in a sentence? If so, then what did you do to resolve this?

For me, I never knew whether it was acceptable grammar. However, what I did learn was that it was a logic distractor, could lead to confusion, and therefore should be reworded to avoid this.

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Am I the only one thinking about buffaloes? –  Neil Fein Sep 25 '10 at 6:01
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Had had had the same issue. –  moioci Sep 26 '10 at 5:10
    
The two 'that's get pronounced differently here, at least when I say them, this isn't as confusing when it's spoken as when it's written. –  Peter Shor Mar 27 '12 at 16:24
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whenever somebody needs an example of correct usage of that that just quote: "We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." A. Lincoln –  mhoran_psprep Aug 11 '12 at 12:24
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For anyone else confused by the buffalo reference: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  SystemParadox May 22 '13 at 8:27
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7 Answers

up vote 29 down vote accepted

There are three very different uses of that:

  • Subordinating that: “I know that this is the answer.”
  • Demonstrative pronoun that: “That is not the answer.”
  • Adjectival that: “That answer is not it.”

Double that occurs because the first that is the subordinating that, and the second that is a demonstrative pronoun or adjectival that. That is, if you subordinate a clause that begins with pronominal or adjectival that with that, you get that that, as in “you know that that that that from the previous sentence was different from the one in this sentence.”

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From your explanation, I now realize it is acceptable grammar. However, for readability, it is a distraction. Therefore, I think a sentence should be reworked to avoid it. –  Volomike Oct 11 '11 at 17:21
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Too bad your handle is not "nothat". –  Stefano Borini Mar 20 '12 at 1:18
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My dad Pat and brother Matt thought that that that that that nohat had everybody have down pat was neat. –  Talia Ford Sep 10 '13 at 15:44
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Don't forget that that "that" that appears before the other "that" does a different job.

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+1. Buffalo buffalo... –  PSU Mar 24 '11 at 21:35
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Of course it is acceptable grammar. The rules of English grammar are the very reason why such "strange things" happen in the first place.

Now, whether or not you actually end up using a double "that" or rewording it, is a different question. But it is a question of style. Read: personal preference.

Personally, more often than not, I don't find a double "that" to be distracting or leading to confusion at all. Quite the contrary: it is a) perfectly self-explanatory and b) it certainly leads to less confusion than leaving one of those "that"s out.

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I don't think that that is a problem.

Having said that, it would still make sense if one of the "that"s in the previous sentence were omitted.

EDIT: In response to Reg's comment:

If a "that" is omitted, it's the first one that is removed. Replacing the second "that" with "it" may clarify things:

I don't think that it is a problem.

I don't think it is a problem.

Hence saying "I don't think that is a problem" is fine - as long as you're familiar with this particular usage of the word "that". If not, then it could obviously cause confusion.

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Yeah, but that is just one kind of "that that". Here's another one: "I don't think that that problem is serious." Everyone is happily parsing that as "[I don't think that] [that problem is serious]", and everything is hunky-dory. Now we try our nifty trick of dropping one of the "that"s — "I don't think that problem is serious" —, and we immediately get a certain amount of people who parse the sentence as "[I don't think that] [problem is serious]" on their first try, and get terribly confused, and have to go back and try a different parsing. (Is that a garden-path sentence yet?) –  RegDwigнt Sep 24 '10 at 20:47
    
Interesting example and thought process here, Reg. –  Volomike Sep 25 '10 at 1:37
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This is correct. The two words are performing different functions. The first that is used to introduce a clause. The second that is used to refer to a specific thing.

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It's perfectly fine to write "that that" or to simply write "that": your choice, your style, your need at the moment.

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I would argue that it might very well be correct, but if it makes you uncomfortable, it may also distract your readers. You've likely seen the common example:

The human brain often skips any extra words that appear in the the sentence they're reading

The same behaviour might happen with the extra "that" appearing in your sentence. So while it might be correct in theory, perhaps you could reword your sentence such that it becomes more readable for your audience.

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+1. Just because something’s grammatically correct doesn’t mean it’s good. –  PLL Mar 25 '11 at 0:26
    
If you're saying that that that will be ignored, why not just leave it in? (Tried to work in a fourth "that"; failed.) –  Malvolio Aug 10 '12 at 20:18
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