Is the structure 'was that' + independent clause correct?

Example sentence:

The major difference about these two groups was that they were composed entirely of young children

  • Simplify before you parse: (The difference about these groups) was (that they were composed of children) -> (The difference) was (that they were children) -> (The difference) is/was(are/were ...) (that (they were children)) -> (The difference) is/was(are/were ...) (that (IC)) – Kris Nov 10 '13 at 14:33
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    That part of the sentence is perfectly fine. “The major difference about these groups”, however, sounds a bit odd. I would say, “What set these two groups apart” or something like that instead. If you use ‘difference’, the reader will be expecting to find what the differences are between. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 10 '13 at 14:33
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    You don't want to use difference; that is only used when you want to say that the two groups are not the same. You want to say: "The major distinction of these two groups was …" – Peter Shor Nov 10 '13 at 16:47
  • Was that is not a constituent. All you're talking about is swapping the two [bracketed noun phrases] in the following sentence: [That they were composed entirely of young children] was [the major difference about these two groups]. – John Lawler Nov 10 '13 at 18:43

You seem to be misunderstanding the makeup of the sentence. It is not made up of

[subject] [was that] [independent clause]

Rather, it is:

[subject] [copula] [dependent clause]

In other words, was that is not a constituent that belongs together. The verb ‘to be’ is a copula (also known as a ‘linking verb’) that basically functions like an equals sign: it links a subject and its predicate (also known as ‘subject complement’ or a ‘predicative complement’), stating that one equals the other. So the following two are basically the same:

[subject] [copula] [predicate]
[subject] = [predicate]

Both the subject and the predicate above must be of a nominal type. That is, they must either be a noun phrase (such as “the major distinguishing feature of these two groups”) or a dependent noun clause (i.e., a dependent clause that can function as a noun). One type of dependent noun clause is the subordinate clause introduced by the conjunction ‘that’.

In your example, then, the subject is the major distinguishing feature of these two groups, a simple noun phrase; the copula is was, and the predicate is the dependent noun clause that they were composed entirely of young children.


Your sentence is fine as is, but you've misunderstood the constructions that are involved.

Your sentence is in the form of a copular clause. What you have here is "Subject - Verb - Predicative Complement", and the predicative complement (PC) is a content clause, and the word "that" is a content clause subordinator. This is a way you can parse your sentence:

  • [Subject: The major difference about these two groups] Verb: was [PC: that they were composed entirely of young children].

This subordinator "that" has no semantic meaning; rather, it is a marker that identifies the beginning of a content clause. (Note: This "that" is not a relative pronoun nor relative word.)


First of all .. The major difference BETWEEN these, not ABOUT these.

  1. "That" in your sentence is the object of the verb "WAS"

  2. "That" is also acting as a relative pronoun to join the two clauses. The major difference between the groups (dependent ) They were composed entirely of young children(independent)

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    :( Im sorry, but Im still confused. :( – BinhPHT Nov 10 '13 at 15:51
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    The OP doesn't mean between. He wants to talk about the difference between these two groups on one hand, and typical groups on the other hand. – Peter Shor Nov 10 '13 at 16:45
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    1) As Peter says, this is not a difference between these two groups—that would make the sentence nonsensical. 2) ‘That’ is not the object of anything. 3) ‘Was’ is a copular verb and can therefore not take objects. 4) ‘That’ is not acting as a relative pronoun to join two clauses: it is a conjunction that introduces a subordinate clause, which functions as the subject predicate (or subject) in the sentence. 5) “The major difference between the groups” is not a dependent clause, or a clause at all—it is a noun phrase. There is basically nothing in this answer that isn’t wrong. -1. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 10 '13 at 16:13
  • @Janus: I think the downvotes are completely unjustified here. The major problem with this question was that it gave a pointlessly confusing example usage. With no explanatory context, we've no way of knowing whether OP's intended meaning would be properly expressed using biloo's between, or my with, but there's no doubt in my mind that about could never be correct. I believe some grammars count that as a "relative pronoun", but the terminology itself seems almost irrelevant in respect of a question which simply asks if the construction is "correct" English. – FumbleFingers Dec 10 '13 at 22:35
  • @Fumble, ‘between’ just could not work in the example. “The major difference between them was that they were composed of children” makes no sense. What the real, intended meaning was is unclear; but simply substituting ‘between’ is not a valid option. And of course ‘that’ is a relative pronoun—when it sets off a relative clause. Not when it sets off a subordinate clause like this one, though. The fact that there are so many factual and terminological mistakes in this answer makes it a very confusing one. I can’t blame the asker for still being confused after reading this: it makes no sense. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 10 '13 at 22:46

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