It is having time to think that makes me depressed.

In this sentence, what is the grammatical function of the word that?

  • Is this an exam? We don't do exams. And, if it's not about what your teacher means, what do you mean by "the grammatical function" of a word? Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 1:21
  • I am interested in what your teacher thinks of the elaboration of the complexities by @JohnLawler. Do post back for our benefit.
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 6:40

2 Answers 2


The word that is a relative pronoun here.

The antecedent (what it refers back to) is it, the subject of the sentence. Because it is linked by a copula (is) to a subject complement, which is having time to think, the relative pronoun that indirectly refers to having time to think.

The relative pronoun is the subject of the relative clause that makes me depressed (the object is me; the object complement is depressed).

If one wanted to simplify this sentence without much loss of meaning, it could be rephrased like this:

Having time to think makes me depressed.

Or, slightly more complex:

What makes me depressed is having time to think.

  • But see John Lawler's answer and Barrie England's comment thereto.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 21:50
  • @ColinFine: John's answer looks fine to me, though I partially disagree with what he and Barrie say in their comments (see there). Commented Dec 31, 2011 at 15:00
  • It is having time to think that makes me depressed

is a Cleft sentence. It is derived from

  • Having time to think makes me depressed

by applying the It-Cleft rule, exactly the same way

  • Bill kicked the can

transforms into

  • It was Bill that kicked the can

via It-Cleft.

In an It-Clefted sentence, the usual designation of the that is as a relative pronoun, as noted by Cerberus. Or, if you go to a different syntactic church, it could be considered a complementizer for the relative clause (the relative pronoun having conveniently been deleted). Depends on various details of Cleft formation, and how they're formulated.

However, the sentence

  • What makes me depressed is having time to think

is a Pseudo-Cleft (or Wh-Cleft) sentence, also derived from

  • Having time to think makes me depressed,

but by a different Clefting rule. Pseudo-clefting could transform

  • Bill kicked the can


  • What Bill kicked was the can.

The difference between the two types is exemplified here.

  • 2
    Worried if the OP has fainted. I almost did, as much in awe as grammatical exhaustion.'
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 6:38
  • Part, at least, of the case against regarding ‘that’ as a relative pronoun is put by Bas Aarts in his ‘Oxford Modern English Grammar’: ‘In this grammar we analyse “that” as a subordinating conjunction. We do not regard it as a pronoun because pronouns can function as the complements of prepositions . . . whereas the conjunction “that” cannot.’ Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 9:00
  • I wouldn't object to calling it a complementizer or a subordinating conjunction; since it's deletable it can't-- or at least needn't -- have reference, and that is already an undisputed complementizer in noun complements like That she misses him is obvious. Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 22:52
  • 1
    In any event, the actual Function of the word that in a Cleft sentence, as opposed to its purported grammatical category membership, is as a Fulcrum of Cleavage -- the word on which the two marked parts of a cleft sentence pivot. This handout from a talk on the remain to be seen construction has the fulcrums color-coded, along with other interesting grammatical cartography. Commented Dec 30, 2011 at 22:52
  • 1
    @JohnLawler: I like your analysis too; I think traditional grammar and modern linguistic terminology can peacefully coexist. When the newer models use terms from the traditional one, they should be free to use them with the same meaning; however, if they want to change their meaning, which I suspect is the case with "relative pronoun", I'd prefer if they just chose a different word altogether. A word like complementizer is a good example of how new concepts should be introduced, I think. Commented Dec 31, 2011 at 14:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.