2

It will be the first time (that) I have flown to America.

The above example sentence is borrowed from this earlier post.

Depending on context, there can be other variations as follows:

It is the first time (that) I have flown to America.

It was the first time (that) I had flown to America.

The parentheses are there to indicate that that is optional.

What exactly is this that-clause? Is it an ordinary relative clause? If it is, why is it not allowed to use "when" instead of "that"?

It will be the first time when I have flown to America. (?)

Ngram: is the first time that vs. is the first time when

Edit: I'm leaning toward the relative clause.

The only thing that bothers me is that a relative clause generally allows "when" instead of "that" insofar as the antecedent is some kind of "time". Are there some other relative clauses that don't quite allow "when" for a "time" antecedent?

  • 1
    This isn't an answer, just an observation. One refers to temporal duration and is usually uncountable. The other refers to an occurrence and is countable. In most languages they have two different words. This is the occurrence time, the same one we find in How many times have you flown to America. – Araucaria Nov 12 '14 at 14:45
  • EDIT: This isn't an answer, just an observation. There are two types of 'time' in English. One refers to temporal duration and is usually uncountable. The other refers to an occurrence and is countable. In most languages they have two different words for these; for example in Spanish there is 'tiempo' and 'vez. This is the occurrence time, the same one we find in How many times have you flown to America. – Araucaria Nov 14 '14 at 11:03
  • Yes, and the first time refers to (potentially repeated) events, each happening at a different times. That would be more common than when because when_(which is quite uncommon as a relative pronoun) is restricted to what it can modify, whereas _that isn't, and Zero is even less. In this case, That was the first time when I flew to America is OK (and so are that and Zero), but with a definite subject, and not with the perfect constructions. – John Lawler Aug 7 '15 at 3:21
2

Yes, it is a relative clause.

  • it begins with 'that'
  • it contains a subject and object (is a complete sentence without the relative pronoun)

Don't be distracted by the possible variations, the variation with 'that' is usually the most telling intro to a relative clause. 'When' works grammatically and you might think it is the better choice, but it just isn't used that much by native speakers (and sounds a little weird).

  • 1
    Howabout The idea that goats can fly is stupid, would you count that as a relative clause? or That she is better at maths than me really annoys me. Would that? These aren't normally considered relative clauses but content clauses. They have no gap in them where the antecedent would be if it was a relative clause. Consider That's the house where I met your mother _____ We can put something like a there in that gap. But I can't sense a similar gap in the OPs examples ... Content clauses are headed by that and are complete clauses - relatives are not. They have a gap in them :) – Araucaria Nov 12 '14 at 16:25
  • @Mitch: I don't agree that everything under the sun that satisfies both your conditions necessarily is a relative clause. That said, I think it is perhaps closest to one. You agree that the 'when'-clause sounds weird. Can you show me some examples of the relative clause that has a "time"-related antecedent that sounds awkward/weird with 'when'? – JK2 Nov 12 '14 at 21:29
  • @JK2: 1) I'm not trying to be definitive, just enough for the OP to recognize a simple grammatical concept, which surely has many more nuances. 2) I don't find the sentence given (with 'when') awkward exactly, but I just wouldn't say that, I'd use 'that'. – Mitch Nov 12 '14 at 21:57
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    @Araucaria: ha ha...I am now. – Mitch Nov 13 '14 at 0:50
-2

It's the first time that I fly to America.

What part of sentence is the that-clause? I wouldn't say it is a relative clause. "It" is the percursory or empty subject, and the that-clause is the main subject.

Though it is not very stylistic it would be possible to place the that-clause in subject position:

That I fly to America is the first time.

Supplement

Relative clause or not. It seems there are different views. And all the time I'm thinking about how to show that we have no relative clause. One characteristic of relative clauses is that you can change them in a second sentence:

1 Once there was a king who had three daughters - Once there was a king and this king/he had three daughters.

2 Once there was a king whose daughter was ill - Once there was a king and this king's daughter/his daughter was ill.

3 Once there was a king whom God had given no children - Once there was a king and God had given this king/him no children.

Now try to change "It is the first time that I fly to America" according to the three examples above to show that it is a relative clause.

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    @rogemue - That I fly to America is interesting works, but That I fly to America is the first time sound most unnatural to me. – tunny Nov 12 '14 at 10:32
  • @tunny - As I said it is not very stylistic. But a that-clause can take subject position: It didn't seem possible that he could be mistaken - or: That he could be mistaken didn't seem possible. Example taken from Oxford Guide to English Grammar by John Eastwood, paragraph 260. – rogermue Nov 12 '14 at 10:46
  • A that clause can take subject position when it is a subordinator, not when it is a relative pronoun, which I think it is in This is the first time that I fly to America (itself not very natural with present simple fly). I think Eastwood made a mistake when if he gave that exact example. – tunny Nov 12 '14 at 10:53
  • @tunny - Well, tunny, it can happen that there are different views about grammar structures. – rogermue Nov 12 '14 at 10:55
  • @tunny: Why did you use the present tense (fly) when there is no such version in the OP? Besides, Eastwood's example may be different from the OP's. "That he could be mistaken didn't seem possible" seems possible to me, whereas "That I fly to America is the first time" doesn't. Because the fact that I fly to America is neither equivalent to "the first time" nor has an attribute of being the first time. – JK2 Nov 12 '14 at 12:57

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