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IN EARLY 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic tearing across the world, most people thought it unlikely that a vaccine would arrive any time soon. And as work to develop vaccines began, there were dire warnings of the difficulties ahead. That is why it is so remarkable that, heading into 2021, it seems likely that one or more working vaccines will soon be available. That this can be said with such certainty reflects the number and diversity of approaches being taken.

What is the role of "That" in the beginning of the last sentence? Under what circumstances a sentence can start with "That"?

Source: https://www.economist.com/the-world-ahead/2020/11/16/the-covid-19-vaccination-programme-will-be-the-biggest-in-history

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The role here is to be a shortened version of "the fact/idea that...".

The fact that this can be said with such certainty reflects the number and diversity of approaches being taken.

Another example:

The idea that my drawing of a cat can be mistaken as a bird is proposterous. You must be joking.

Which can also be said as:

That my drawing of a cat can be mistaken as a bird is proposterous. You must be joking.

As for when to use "that" this way, Merriam-Webster describes it like so:

Used as a function word to introduce a subordinate clause that is joined as complement to a noun or adjective.

For additional insight: 'The fact that' versus just 'That'

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  • No, it isn't short for that. The fact that X, for some X, means that the speaker is vouching for the truth of X. That's not true for a simple that, which is a Complementizer, a kind of word that doesn't have any meaning but just marks a particular kind of construction, like the complementizer to marks infinitives. The complementizer that marks tensed complement clauses, object complements like I think that I shall never see..., and subject complements like That I left annoyed her, aka It annoyed her that I left. Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 0:19
  • @JohnLawler I said it could be the fact/idea, I wasn't implying anything about vouching for the truth (that was just an example). So you are disagreeing that the M-W definition I supplied applies in this case? It even mentions "as a complement" merriam-webster.com/dictionary/that
    – mjjf
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 0:56
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    Syntactically, the construction with "that" is in competition with "the fact that", the former being much less frequent. The effect of "the fact that" is to nominalise the content clause. Compare, for example, The fact that it was illegal didn't worry him with That it was illegal didn't worry him. There's little difference in meaning between the two.
    – BillJ
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 11:11
  • @BillJ I agree, the only difference is whatever meaning the noun you use (fact/idea/etc) adds to the sentence. I find it hard to explain practically without such a word, which is why I provided a couple options. Note that this answer is from a practical English perspective. This is how I implicitly interpret these phrases when they appear. I did research the grammar rules to try to provide that perspective, but I am not an English teacher by trade.
    – mjjf
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 14:46

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