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I'm probably overthinking this, but I can't seem to be able to identify the function of the word "that" in the sentence "I know that...". For the sake of an example, let's use the sentence:

I know that I don't know.

Is "that" simply a conjunction here, because it connects the two clauses? If it is, it should be a subordinating conjunction. But I don't think so, because "that I don't know" is an object of the first verb "know".

My intuition tells me it's a pronoun, or a relative pronoun to be exact, but I can't explain why it is; there isn't a noun in front of the pronoun "that" for it to replace.

Is this a case in which there's an omitted noun that is supposed to be before "that"?

Any help is greatly appreciated!

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    If you say "What is that?" then "that" is a demonstrative pronoun. If you write about "the thing that I bought", then "that" is a relative pronoun. In your example, "that" is a subordinating conjunction. It is not unusual for a subordinate clause to function as the object of a verb, so your objection has no force. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 3:40
  • Thanks, Michael. I digged deeper into what you said about "that" being a conjunction of a clausal object and found the following article. Putting it here so everyone can have a quick look and put in their two cents, if they so wish, on whether they agree or disagree with it: academicguides.waldenu.edu/formandstyle/writing/…
    – Dxml
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 17:26
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    Does this answer your question? I am concerned/worried that: what is the function etc of 'that'? Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 15:10
  • @EdwinAshworth Yes. Thanks for the link!
    – Dxml
    Commented Oct 1, 2020 at 20:15

1 Answer 1

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In the sentence

  • He knows [that she'll be at the party].

the bracketed Complement Clause that she'll be at the party is the direct object of know
(what does he know? that she'll be at the party). Know is a verb that can take a that-complement as object.

This object complement clause is introduced by the Complementizer that; complementizers mark subordinate clauses as subordinate. There are several other complementizers besides that, and several other types of that besides complementizer that.

Complementizer that was used in Middle English to introduce any tensed clause (including adjective clauses and adverbial clauses like before that we set up the tent, still used in some dialects of English); but now it's mostly restricted to tensed complement clauses used as noun phrases.

Complementizer that eventually became the relative pronoun that as in the man that she saw; most people treat it as a relative pronoun instead of a complementizer now, but it's still a source of confusion when students are erroneously told that it's neuter.

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  • First of all, thank you for this detailed explanation. "That" being a complementizer was something I wouldn't have been able to think of on my own. I was wondering how you would parse the following sentence differently from your example: He knows the fact that she'll be at the party. Or is this non-standard/ungrammatical?
    – Dxml
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 2:41
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    Yes, that's grammatical, though it's odd, because it doesn't add any information, except that the speaker believes that she'll be at the party, too. That could only be relevant in special contexts. The phrase the fact that has become much more common in speech as a hesitation filler, but it has its own grammar and uses and isn't a substitute for that. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 14:19
  • Thanks again, John. "The fact that" does seem to be colloquial and 'frozen' in speech. If you don't mind, I'd like to push the discussion a bit further and try another example with a different noun that "fact": He knows the detail that she'll be at the party. How is the function of "that" here different from its function in "He knows that she'll be at the party"? Does "that" still function as a complementizer, but instead of being the object of the verb "know", it now takes on a similar function to that of a postpositional adjective of the noun phrase "the detail"?
    – Dxml
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 17:21
  • Another question, if that's ok for you. Could you elaborate on what you meant by "that" being a neuter in your original response? Between what is "that" a neuter? "Complementizer that eventually became the relative pronoun that as in the man that she saw; most people treat it as a relative pronoun instead of a complementizer now, but it's still a source of confusion when students are erroneously told that it's neuter."
    – Dxml
    Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 17:46
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    The that in the fixed phrase the fact that is a complementizer that. It introduces a noun complement, another type of clause expressing the "content" of the fact. As for the "neuter" business, some people are taught erroneously that that should not be a relative pronoun representing people; i.e, they would claim the man that came to dinner was incorrect, and it should be the man who came to dinner. There's no end to the nonsense some people will believe. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 23:01

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