In the sentence, "that's who he was looking for", how would you classify the contraction that's? How is the sentence grammatically dissected? Four words into the sentence, the reader is presented with three pronouns: that, who, and he - which is object, the subject and what is the third?

  • Under what classification system would you "classify" that word? What are the possibilities and what are their rules? What does "grammatically dissect" mean? Do you mean a syntactic analysis of the principal constituents?
    – tchrist
    Dec 2, 2017 at 18:21
  • I'm not being purposefully obstinate, the vagueness is just because I don't know. When I say 'classify', I mean is there a specific term for the usage of "that is", which begins the sentence. Yes, a syntactic analysis would help. The sentence itself just confounds me - it is supposed to because it is written by Henry James, but I'm hoping a rigid analysis of it might bring some clarity. Dec 2, 2017 at 18:30

1 Answer 1


That’s who he was looking for.

In your sample, you would classify that’s as a written contraction of the sentence’s subject that with its verb is, here written ’s. So that’s is not one thing but two things.

Linguists have long applied a range of classification systems for purposes of syntactic and lexical analysis. More recently, the computer-science field known as natural language processing has made automated classification possible, if not perfect.

CMU offers an online English parser for very short English sentences like yours. That produces this constituent tree for your sentence:

(S (NP That)
   (VP 's who
       (S (NP he)
          (VP was
              (VP working
                  (PP for)))))

Stanford also provides an online interface to its parser that allows only short sentences. Run on your sentence, that produces this tree, which now includes part-of-speech notation for the separate words:

    (NP (DT That))
    (VP (VBZ 's)
        (WHNP (WP who))
          (NP (PRP he))
          (VP (VBD was)
            (VP (VBG working)
              (PP (IN for)))))))
    (. .)))

Those all use the standard Penn Treebank tag set for tagging what’s what. There are other tag sets used professionally for these, but the Penn ones are the most commonly recognized, even if they are not the most useful for all purposes.

So for example, it classifies That as a determiner (ᴅᴛ) because that’s your only real choice here using the Penn tags. There isn’t a specific Penn tag for the distal demonstrative pronoun which that here in fact really “is”. See also deixis.

A far more nuanced POS tagset is Martin Mueller’s NUPOS tagset. The thing to understand about all classification systems is that these are notational inventions to serve some particular purpose. Because of that, many different classification systems exist, each custom made to serve some theorist’s peculiar need. I recommend you read Mueller’s section 4, “About tag sets” in his NUPOS paper.

  • What's the betting nobody else upvotes? Dec 3, 2017 at 0:43

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