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There is an expression I think comes from ...

Others have told me (that) such a construction is wrong, but I am sure (that) it is OK.

An editor decided it was grammatically wrong and "corrected" it to:

There is an expression that I think comes from ...

Though correct, that 'that' isn't (that) necessary, is it?

Clearly more than editing out extraneous 'thats,' there is an entire class of similar sentence constructions. Perhaps a "clause needing no relative pronoun," or "phrasal elision"?

Any ideas what this construct is or what it's called?

EDIT - Thanks to tchrist for reminding me to do things better, here's a good link to clarifications of 'that' usage in clauses / phrases.

  • 3
    This isn't whiz-deletion; whiz-deletion deletes the relative pronoun and a form of be. There's no be verb here; the relative clause is extracting the relative pronoun from the subject of comes from, which is a complement clause of I think. So it's just optional relative pronoun deletion, which is possible whenever the relative pronoun is not the subject of the following clause (which is isn't, here -- I is the subject of the clause following that). So you can keep the that or drop it, as you please, as long as what follows the antecedent is another noun phrase. – John Lawler Sep 15 '14 at 19:07
  • As long as the relative pronoun is not the subject of the relative clause, it's deletable, provided that the next thing after the deletion is a noun phrase. Two noun phrases in a row are a parsing signal to push down and begin parsing a relative clause. – John Lawler Sep 15 '14 at 20:58
  • “Pesky”? Could you please explain how it pesks you? – tchrist Sep 15 '14 at 21:17
  • @JohnLawler I’ve never been very successful at banishing whose. – tchrist Sep 15 '14 at 21:21
  • 2
    People might believe anything at all about English grammar; I've stopped being surprised. Fantasies abound everywhere. That (or a Wh-word) is needed when it is the subject of the relative clause. Otherwise it's not. That's the real grammar rule (for relative clauses, at least -- there are other uses of that in other clauses). Native speakers know this rule, unconsciously, and follow it in unmonitored speech; but they are rarely taught about English grammar in school, so they don't trust their intuitions, or know how to talk about them. – John Lawler Sep 15 '14 at 22:06

The Floating 'I Think'

Working with the sentence fragment that the poster provides, we can place "I think" in at least four locations with reasonably natural-sounding results:

There is an expression [that] I think comes from ...


There is an expression [that] comes, I think, from ...


I think there is an expression [that] comes from ...


There is, I think, an expression [that] comes from ...

In the first two cases above, the "I think" attaches to the derivation of the (unnamed) expression and conveys the meaning, "I think a particular expression—call it expression X—comes from source Y." In the second two cases above, it attaches to the existence of the expression and has the meaning, "I think a particular expression—call it expression X—from source Y exists."

The author is confident enough in the expression's existence not to bother qualifying that part of the sentence with "I think"; but the same is not true with regard to the derivation of the expression. The two options that put "I think" in position to hedge the appropriate assertion are "There is an expression [that] I think comes from ..." and "There is an expression [that] comes, I think, from ..."

But in those two cases, the placement of the floating "I think" doesn't alter the underlying assertion that "I think" qualifies—namely, "There is an expression [that] comes from ..." For that reason, I have trouble seeing why omitting that in the first case is optional:

There is an expression [that] I think comes from ...

but omitting it in the second case is an error:

There is an expression [that] comes, I think, from ...

Another Possible Destination

So far, I've neglected a fifth location where "I think" would fit in the poster's sentence fragment without sounding weird—namely, immediately before the actual or implied that. Here it is:

There is an expression, I think, [that] comes from ...

This case, like the third and fourth cases above, uses "I think" as a qualifier attached to the assertion that the expression exists, rather than to the (incomplete) assertion about the source of the expression. But except for the commas and the position of the included that, it's identical to the first case above—the one from which the poster wants to omit that. In this fifth instance, too, omitting that yields a problematic result:

There is an expression, I think, comes from ...

A Brief Descent Into Style

Though much of what I've said to this point may seem to be championing the idea of making that explicit in "There is... that..." constructions, I'm not a big fan of those constructions. It's all too easy to get caught up in the issue of whether to include or omit that in a sentence like

There is something I think [that] doesn't love a wall.

to the exclusion of asking whether the "I think" is useful. (Frost evidently didn't think it was; but being a poet he also took the unprosaic step of transposing "there is" and "something.") Or for that matter, to the exclusion of considering whether both "There is" and "that" could be dispensed with for the benefit of the whole:

Something doesn't love a wall.

Such trimming doesn't always help sentences, and sometimes it seriously hurts them. But sometimes it does them good—especially when the writer tends to apply lard liberally and thoughtlessly to every page. This is a matter of style, however, and in style there is no truth.

  • Tangential to my op, the excursion is interesting and pragmatic. A fanboy for simplified writing, I've given an up vote for effort and thoroughness. Although you do mention "trimming doesn't always help ... and [may] hurt[]," leaving 'I think' out of my original post (the basis of the OP), would have been untenable and dishonest. I'm also a fanboy for the truth. To have said "an expression coming from..." would have posited authority. To have said "an expression which I believe comes from" would have been butt ugly. I rest my case, I think. :)) – Howard Pautz Oct 11 '14 at 15:41

I gave him the one that was brighter

I gave him the one that I saw was brighter

You really should always include "that" or similar words when joining two phrases, as it helps clarity. Spoken English tends to omit it when not needed, as does informal written English.

I gave him the one I saw was brighter

The use of the subject pronoun "I" (or any subject pronoun) makes it clear you're beginning a new phrase so the "that" is able to be deleted without loss of clarity.

I gave him the one was brighter

It sounds like you have an unfinished sentence here - "I gave him the ... ???" and then all of a sudden a new phrase "One was brighter."

There is an expression {that} I think comes from ...

The "that" can be omitted here.

There is an expression that comes from ...

Omitting the "that" here will make the sentence nonsensical.

  • Well, guess I should have said I'm a native speaker :-O Please read Prof. Lawler's comments under my OP. I did not up vote your answer though I do appreciate your having taken the time. It is interesting to me that your first recommendation is an example of precisely what an editor should not do - and what my OP was whining about. (A lesser mortal might have down voted your answer ;-P) If you want to edit your answer accordingly by removing the phrase "you should always include 'that' ... when joining two phrases, as it helps clarity." I'd be glad to give you the up tick ... continues ... – Howard Pautz Sep 30 '14 at 16:01
  • ... although @johnlawler already provided the same. I disagree that that that that you describe adds clarity. In fact adding a that that isn't a required that just demeans the coolness of some of the language's abilities. (Which is why I went on an editor bashing session in the first place.) Is that clear? :)) – Howard Pautz Sep 30 '14 at 16:04

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