I seem to have a problem with using the word "that" before pronouns and have been told that it is wrong.


  1. They were playing a piece of music that they had only heard once before.

  2. I am going to a shop that I like.

Is it really wrong to put "that" before pronouns and if so, why is it wrong? What is the rule that goes with this?

  • 6
    It's not wrong. Who told you that it is? See what I did there? – Tushar Raj May 21 '15 at 17:38
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    (1) there are several words that in English, so saying the word "that" is not helpful; this one is the complementizer that. (2) English has no rules forbidding complementizers to appear before pronouns (in fact, it has no rules forbidding any kind of word to appear before any other kind of word -- the idea is silly in itself. (3) complementizer that is often optional, and may be dropped or retained, as the speaker chooses. (4) since complementizer that occurs at the beginning of the clause, it precedes the subject, which may be a pronoun. But there's no rule about it. – John Lawler May 21 '15 at 17:44
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    There are two 'thats' involved here, and they are being confused. (1) The demonstrative determiner (cf 'this') ('I like that view / film / piece of music ...'); this cannot be used before say him or them (though 'I like that one' is fine). The complementiser 'that' may be used before nouns or pronouns in the subjective case (I think that John / Sue / the dog / he / they / it ...). – Edwin Ashworth May 21 '15 at 17:47
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    @EdwinAshworth .. Yes, and before "accusative" case ones too! – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 22 '15 at 0:48
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    I'd use the poss-ing there. – Edwin Ashworth May 22 '15 at 16:03

According to this post by Grammar Girl,

When you’re deciding whether to keep or omit your that, you need to consider how your sentence flows. Many times, it’s just a matter of personal preference. Some people think adding that improves the flow of the sentence and makes it easier for the reader to understand. Others believe they should delete every seemingly unnecessary that because they want to maintain an economy of words. I’m all for cutting unnecessary words, but I often like to keep my that if it helps the rhythm of the sentence.

She goes on to give examples of when to definitely use that and when definitely not to.

  • Grammar Girl is very nice, but her grammar advice is -- alas -- incomplete, often unreliable, and not free of zombie rules. She's not a grammarian; she's a blogger. – John Lawler May 27 '15 at 19:11

It's not technically wrong. I think function of that you are referring to is that of a noun clause as described on this page under §5. However, to me it tends to sound a bit odd if somebody does this consistently.

I'm Dutch and in Dutch the usage of the word that in cases like these is very common. So this is one of the telltale signs of a fellow native Dutchman speaking english:).

Disclaimer: I sometimes find, I tend to think anything that sounds Dutch isn't proper English. So I might be slightly biased on this one:).


I don't believe it is wrong per se. I am not an expert. But I am fairly sure that in the first example you gave, the word "that" is not needed in the sentence. You could simply remove it.
"They were playing a piece of music they had only heard once before."

The second example also seems to me that it does not need the word "that"
"I am going to a shop I like."

Someone correct me if I'm wrong on that. But I believe your usage of the word "that" seems perfectly acceptable, just unnecessary.


That can serve as a syntactic pleonasm, which "occurs when the grammar of a language makes certain function words optional" (Wikipedia). Therefore, both of the following sentences are grammatically correct:

  • I know you are coming.

  • I know that you are coming.

It's a matter of personal preference whether you leave that in or take it out; the sentences you gave will be grammatically correct either way.

  • There are some rules -- that is required when it introduces a subject complement clause; otherwise you can't tell the dependent from the independent clause. That he left early turned out to be a blessing, but not *He left early turned out to be a blessing. – John Lawler May 27 '15 at 19:09

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