Under what condition should we use "that" as the required and ONLY relative pronoun? Please give some examples. Thanks!

  • If you ask CGEL, never, because that isn't a relative pronoun at all in their view. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 17:22
  • Yeah, that's the problem with using technical language in a question. CGEL considers it a complementizer, if I recall correctly; but maybe I don't recall correctly. It certainly was a tensed clause complementizer in Chaucer's time (Whan that Aprille...) and it still is in modern English complement clauses, but I don't mind calling it an allomorph of Wh-pronouns. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 18:22
  • @JohnLawler And I believe Þæt and other inflections of the article were employed as relativizers before the hw- forms were recruited to that use. The original complementizer was Þe; in effect, the and that switched places. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 19:01
  • Right. And German uses articles for relatives still. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 19:04

3 Answers 3


There is NO circumstance in which the language requires a relative that and excludes use of a wh- relativizer or ‘null’ relativizer (no relativizer).

That is preferred by some writers (and most speakers) when the relative clause is restrictive, and this preference has been elevated to a ‘rule’ by some publishers and some writers on style; but the practice is not so generally observed that it can legitimately be called a ‘rule’ of the language itself.

There are contexts in which relative that is prohibited: that may not head a non-restrictive relative clause or follow a preposition at the head of relative clause. These are actual ‘rules’.

  • Actually, there are a few situations -- degenerate cases, essentially -- where that can be used and a Wh-word can't: when the Wh-word would be how, for instance ( *the way how he did it). Same situation for a why-relative modifying any noun except reason (*the purpose why he did it). Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 18:26
  • 1
    @JohnLawler True, in StdE. But the way how may be encountered in the vernacular, and in any case accommodates ∅. And I'd be even more uncomfortable with the purpose that he did it. It really calls for the purpose that/which/∅ he did it for. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 18:52

I would use "that" as the only acceptable relative pronoun in the following sentences:

  • "Everything that I said was criticized."
  • "All the figs that fall are eaten by the pigs."
  • "This is the best hotel that I know".

Using "which" in these examples would be grammatical but would also sound awkward to my ears. ("which" just doesn't sound correct after certain words like "everything", "all", "little", "much" and after "superlatives") Certainly, "that" can be omitted in the first and third examples, and the sentences would sound better.

  1. I know the boy. the boy stole my watch.
  2. he was riding a horse. The horse was running fast.
  3. The teacher call Rahul. Rahul came at once.
  • To present your examples as instances where that is required, you need to show them as single sentences incorporating that, not merely as pairs of sentences that can be joined by that. Even then, you are likely to encounter disagreement from others here who may not be persuaded that your examples do indeed require that as a joining word.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 5:49

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