I'm currently preparing for GMAT and I stumbled across a sentence

That a ruined structure found at Aqaba, Jordan, was probably a church is indicated by its eastward orientation and overall plan, as well as by the artifacts, such as glass oil-lamp fragments, found at the site.

I'm able to figure out the meaning of the sentence but I'm not able to figure out the structure because as per GMAT official guide, the sentence is correct. Can someone please explain the structure of this sentence.

  • 8
    You may find this sentence easier to parse if you replace "That" by "The fact that". Same meaning. Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 7:22
  • 3
    To the close voter who suggested Linguistics: this question is off topic at Linguistics because it is about a single language, namely English.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 10:21
  • 1
    "That which does not kill us makes us stronger"
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 18:31
  • 2
    Those commas though.
    – James
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 21:30

7 Answers 7


That's not a relative (adjective) clause; it's a that-clause—a noun clause (warning: grammar terms vary). It functions as a noun does in its various roles: subject, object, complement, appositive, etc.

This that is a conjunction, not a relative pronoun.
See Merriam-Webster at that conjunction

English and Language Usage's "resident" authority, linguist John Lawler explains:

There are two kinds of clauses in English that are introduced with "that". One kind is a noun clause (called a "complement"), which may appear (like a noun) as subject or direct object. These are tensed (finite) sentences with a "that" in front of them:

That you were shocked is perhaps not surprising.
I told him that you were shocked.

Source: (in a discussion of "clauses beginning with 'that'")

Your sentence (which I've simplified here for purposes of illustration) is in the passive voice:

That the structure was a church is indicated by its eastward orientation.

Let's put it in the active voice to better see what's happening:

Its eastward orientation indicates that the structure was a church.

That the structure was a church is your that-clause. In the active voice, it is the direct object of the verb indicate. Indicates what? That the structure was a church. As a direct object, it functions as a noun.

In the passive voice, the direct object is promoted to the subject position, replacing its eastward orientation. Now the that-clause is the grammatical subject, and again, it functions as a noun.

Further reading:


  • 2
    Can't these 'that-clauses' (nominal) be relative clauses when we assume them to be reduced clauses as (The fact) that a ruined structure... ? Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 3:23
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    In your example, the noun clause that a ruined structure . . . is an appositive to the noun phrase the fact. If we omit the noun phrase, we still have a noun clause left. More at Relative vs Appositive Clause Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 5:31
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    So you're saying that that that is a conjunction? Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 21:56
  • Acccumulation, you're getting dangerously close to thwacking territory. :)
    – Marthaª
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 3:45
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    @EdwinAshworth Sorry, I was mixing up the Relative Pronoun and Demonstrative Pronoun applications of "that". To be Relative, the first sentence would have to be something like "What you have here isn't a relative (adjective) clause"... Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 12:50

This starts with a finite clause that is not a relative clause. J Lawler lists that-clauses (where 'that' is a complementiser, not a relativiser) (eg I saw that he was hurt; contrast This is the house that/which Jack built) as one of the four types of complement clauses. Aarts, in English Syntax & Argumentation - 1997 2001, states:

...[What] are the particular forms that Subjects can assume? ... [T]hey are typically Noun Phrases .... However, Subjects can also be realised by other phrase types [ ... and clauses].

5.2 Realisations of the Subject

[5] Finite clauses functioning as Subject

  • (11) That he will go to New York soon is obvious.
  • (12) Because he is generous doesn’t mean that he is rich.
  • (13) What the terrorists said puzzled the police.
  • (14) Why she consented remains a mystery.

[subjects in italics] (reformatted)

Example 11 has the form of your example.

  • 2
    I agree that the sentence in the question does not start with a relative clause. But relative clauses are included in the category of finite clauses, so I don't think it makes sense to describe them as contrasting categories the way you do ("a finite clause, not a relative clause"). For example, in the sentence "They found a ruined structure that was probably a church", "that was probably a church" is a relative clause. The main verb of the relative clause is was, a finite verb, so "that was probably a church" is also a finite clause.
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 22:48
  • I was just sticking with Aarts's (that sounds iffy) terminology in an attempt not to confuse. If one subscribes to the reduced relative clause analysis, not all relative clauses are finite ('The man sitting on the form is her uncle'). // Though terminology as well as analysis differs widely, I've addressed the classification error. Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 11:51
  • @herisson Such as Examples 13 and 14: "what the terrorists said" and "Why she consented" are free relative clauses in addition to being finite clauses Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 11:24

[S [NP That [S a ruined structure found at Aqaba, Jordan, was probably a church]] [VP is indicated [PP [PP by its eastward orientation and overall plan], as well as [PP by the artifacts, such as glass oil-lamp fragments, found at the site.]]] ]


According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, the clause starting with That... is a content clause, where that is an obligatory expandable declarative subordinator (p. 952)::

[That a ruined structure found at Aqaba, Jordan, was probably a church] is indicated...

The bracketed elements: [That a ruined structure at Aqaba, Jordan, was probably a church] is functioning as a 'nominal' (p. 1014)1

More specifically, it is a content clause functioning as the subject. I will cite some examples from CaGEL on p. 957:

The prototypical subject is an NP; all verbs (and VPs) allow an NP as subject, but some license a content clause as well:

[1ii] [That they haven’t replied] doesn’t worry her. [content clause as subject]


Constructions containing a that clause as subject are illustrated in:

[3i] [That he tried to retract his statement] is hardly surprising. [complex-intransitive]

The clausal subject of [3i] is licensed by surprising, the head of the predicative complement. Examples of predicatives allowing a declarative content clause as predicand are given in [4i] (adjectival) and [4ii] (with nouns as head).

1 "This classification is based on functional analogies between the subordinate clauses and the three word categories. We have not retained this traditional classification in the present grammar, but will work with the one distinguishing relative, comparative, and content clauses on the basis of overt or covert differences in the structure of the clause. We find the classification as nominal, adjectival, or adverbial unsatisfactory for the following reasons..." (CGEL; pp. 1014-1015)

  • Can you quote the part where it is described as a "nominal"? That surprises me, because I thought CGEL uses "nominal" to refer to a structure that can be used as a component of a noun phrase (like "bigger church" in the NP "a bigger church"). That-clauses don't seem to behave very similarly to nominals like bigger church, red car, or bagel with cream cheese.
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 22:56
  • @herisson p. 1014: "[That he must be guilty] is obvious to everyone ['nominal']". I think CGEL is talking about traditional grammar's categorisation of subordinte clauses being: nominal, adjectival and adverbial clauses. CGEL does prefer to categorise finite subordinate clauses as: relative, comparative & content.
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 0:01
  • Thanks, I see! For clarity, perhaps you could rephrase to "functioning as a 'nominal' clause (p. 1014)". In that quote, I think "nominal" is being used as an adjective, rather than as a noun. Also, it seems important that part on page 1014 is followed pretty immediately by a discussion saying that the authors of the CGEl do not use the terms "nominal clause" or "noun clause" and find them unsatisfactory.
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 0:06
  • @herisson That is what CGEL has classed as 'nominal' according to their view of traditional grammar, though for clarity, I have added the relevant footnote. Thanks for that.
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 0:16

Being heavy, clausal subjects (other than ing ones) are extraposed (pushed to the end of the sentence) whenever possible. In sentences providing a lot of information, it may not be possible. The sentence is fine as it is but I think that clausal subjects are rarely the best option in the context. I'd get rid of the "that" and put the extra information in the form of a relative clause supplement:

A ruined structure found at Aqaba, Jordan was probably a church, which is indicated by its eastward orientation and overall plan, as well as by the artifacts, such as glass oil-lamp fragments, found at the site.

This kind of relative clauses helps split a heavy sentence into more easily readable chunks (which now feels almost like two independent sentences)


[What I do] is [my own business]

Here, "What I do" is a Free Relative Clause, with which the sentence starts.

Also I can take the sentence "I like what I see", and rearrange it to put the Free Relative Clause "what I see" at the beginning of the sentence - changing from Subject-Verb-Object to Object-Subject-Verb:

What I see, I like.

In English, OSV structure is frequently used in the Future Tense, to place emphasis on the Object over the Subject of a sentence, or alongside the conjunction "but":

Bread, I will buy; cake, I will not.

When the Object of the sentence is a Relative Clause then the sentence or fragment will start with a Relative Clause. A Free Relative Clause is more likely to start a sentence than a Bound Relative Clause - as a Bound Relative Clause will typically follow a Head Noun to which it refers:

[The man] [whom I saw yesterday] went [home]


"That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"

"Where there is a will there is a way" are two well-known examples.

  • 1
    I have voted this down as neither of your examples are examples of the construction that the OP referred to.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 12:11

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