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I’ve always thought it grammatically wrong to use “that” to introduce non-defining relative clauses, after a comma, or after a preposition. The following two sentences, however, use “that” after a comma and they still sound idiomatic to me.

  • “It’s no use repeating the obvious things, that have been said by others, and that can be found in any encyclopedia.”
  • “That’s the person, if I’m not mistaken, that we were talking about."

Can it be that, contrary to what I think, “that” can be used after a comma? Or is it just the wrong use of a comma where there should be none? It’s true that in the second example “that” introduces a defining relative clause. But it doesn't appear to be so in the first example.

Edit - I'm not asking for a more natural way of saying things. What I'm asking is:

1. Are these sentences grammatical? Should we use "which" in the second sentence?

2. Is it wrong to place the comma before "that"?

3. Is it wrong to use "that" to introduce a non-restrictive clause as in the first sentence?

The questions Difference between 'which' and 'that' in restrictive (defining) relative clauses and Are there rules about using "that" to join two clauses? and The usage of "that" as a relative pronoun have some good answers on when to use or to omit “that” but they do not address these specific points.

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    Read oxforddictionaries.com/us/words/that-or-which-american . The first sentence should use "which" instead of both the "that"s because it is a non-restrictive relative clause. The adjective "obvious" calls for such usage. – vickyace May 16 '16 at 1:31
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    The second sentence sounds just fine, for that clause in question is used restrictively, with "if I'm not mistaken" used as an interrupter. – sooeithdk May 16 '16 at 1:34
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    I would say that the first sentence should (a) omit the first comma, & (b) use 'and which' after the second comma; and I agree with sooeithdk that, in the second example, the commas are around the "if ..." clause, rather than before the "that" clause. – TrevorD May 16 '16 at 23:12
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    +1, but the premise seems a bit backward: grammar comes before punctuation, so while you can ask whether it's bad punctuation to use , before that, I don't think it's perfectly well-posed to ask whether it's bad grammar to use that after ,. – ruakh May 17 '16 at 0:50
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    I thought I saw a question like this on this site before, but I can't find it. Anyway, this blog post is relevant: That elusive non-restrictive ‘that’ – sumelic May 17 '16 at 2:01
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tldr: What’s written is ok, and I’ll show you what it means.


Grammar is something that falls out of the spoken language, not the written one. Punctuation is unrelated to grammar except in that rare circumstance when it signals an audible intonation change meant to alert the listener to some change in the actual underlying grammar. Those cases are hard to come up with, but do exist. All punctuation is just cues for hearing the real language in your head better.

Therefore by that metric, not only is there nothing wrong with the punctuation as written, there cannot be, and no matter how it is written.

So try saying your first example aloud in your head, which I will here write without commas because voices have no commas, just intonation:

  • It’s no use repeating the obvious things that have been said by others and that can be found in any encyclopedia.

This is a restrictive that here, which you can tell because it can be substituted by which with no change in meaning or permissibility:

  • It’s no use repeating the obvious things which have been said by others and which can be found in any encyclopedia.

We can’t use that in descriptive clauses but we can use both that and which in restrictive ones, so if you can swap them, you know what you have. And the other way around, too. This is grammatical whether with or without its comma:

  • They always wake me at three in the morning(,) which really annoys me.

But this is ungrammatical again no matter whether you write the comma or not:

  • They always wake me at three in the morning(,) *that really annoys me. [ᴡʀᴏɴɢ]

That one is wrong because it tried to use that for a descriptive clause, and you can only use which for those. The native ear goes HUH? when it hears it, which is what makes it ungrammatical.

As you see, it’s never its punctuation which makes something grammatical or ungrammatical. It’s whether you the right worms oops I mean words have managed to put together right — which this sentence almost did not. Twice. :) It had almost managed not to put the right words together, twice.

As you observe, we do not usually use commas before restrictive clauses in English because there is no intonation change to signal there. Presuming that the writer was a competent one, this means the writer was trying to signal something else by including intonation dips. I believe that what he was signalling was an apocopated version of two appositives, which I’ll use em dashes to set off with a repeated things:

  • It’s no use repeating the obvious things — (things) that have been said by others — and (things) that can be found in any encyclopedia.

If you read his punctuation there, the commas, as an indicator of appositives the same way as they’re used for that in this sentence, his pauses will make much more sense. It’s not especially common, so it’s no wonder it caught your eye, but I believe that there is a legitimate reading where it makes perfect sense.

As for this one:

  • “That’s the person, if I’m not mistaken, that we were talking about.”

Here you have to read this for syntactic constituents. The phrase if I’m not mistaken is a parenthetical aside. It could have been written:

  • “That’s the person if I’m not mistaken — that we were talking about.”
  • “That’s the person (if I’m not mistaken) that we were talking about.”
  • “That’s the person (if I’m not mistaken) who/whom we were talking about.”

So the commas are the same as parens or dashes: they’re there to surround the parenthetical statement. Since in the spoken language you cannot hear any punctuation, this cannot change the grammar. They’re just there to help the reader.

These too are all ok:

  • “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the person that we were talking about.”
  • “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the person we were talking about.”
  • “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the person who(m) we were talking about.”
  • “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the person about whom we were talking.”
  • “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the person about which we were talking.”

All those are fine. About the only thing you can’t do is say:

  • “If I’m not mistaken, that’s the person about *that we were talking.” [ᴡʀᴏɴɢ]

Because which cannot function there to start the clause to serve as the object of a preposition.

Summary

Don’t allow some simple, perhaps simplistic, mnemonic tip for good writing style such as “don’t use a comma before that” confuse you about the larger surrounding issues or about a sentence’s actual grammar. Such tips exist to break a common pattern in beginning writers unfamiliar with the conventions normally observed in these things. But rest assured that the actual grammar remains intact no matter the punctuation, for any grammatical error will jump out to your ear without seeing the punctuation — just like in my very last bulleted example sentence above, the one with the extra asterisk.

  • Have the terms "descriptive" and "restrictive" replaced "defining" and "non-defining" (relative clauses)? – Centaurus Feb 4 '17 at 0:22
  • @Centaurus I cannot say for sure, but they do mean the same thing here. – tchrist Feb 4 '17 at 0:58
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The use of comma in the first sentence is not necessary. The sentence is correct and, in fact, is better off without it, to wit:

“It’s no use repeating the obvious things that have been said by others and that can be found in any encyclopedia.”

As for the second sentence, I find it grammatically correct. Per se, I consider the use of "that" as necessary to identify with certainty who they were talking about. The use of comma is called for to set off the appositive, "if I’m not mistaken." As I said, the sentence is correct. However, I suggest the following rephrased sentence for a more natural flow of the words when spoken (as we would usually speak in conversation). This time, "that" may be removed.

“If I'm not mistaken, that’s the person we were talking about."

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    "If I'm not mistaken" is certainly a parenthetical, but it is a modal marker (subclass hedging), not an appositive. "That’s the person, the man we were talking about, if I'm not mistaken." uses an appositive ("the man we were talking about", a 'paraphrase' of "the person"). Compare "Mrs May, the Prime Minister, has said ...". – Edwin Ashworth Nov 4 '16 at 8:47
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In the first sentence, omit both commas and omit the second "that". Now it reads: It's no use repeating the obvious things that have been said by others and can be found in any encyclopedia.

In the second sentence omit the second "that." It will read: That is the person, if I'm not mistaken, we were talking about.

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    This is a workaround that avoids answering the question and, for the second sentence, eliminates a perfectly grammatical that which I find makes it more comprehensible. – Peter Shor May 17 '16 at 2:01

protected by Centaurus Jun 12 '16 at 21:33

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