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This sentence is the first line of a book I just started reading. Authorial choices aside, as a native speaker of English, it FEELS wrong:

"The fact that it was my forty-sixth birthday should have been my first clue that day was going to suck."

I believe that there is either a missing "that" ("should have been my first clue that that day was going to suck") OR a missing "the" ("should have been my first clue that the day was going to suck").

Can someone share with me the technical grammatical rules/terms to look up to learn why this FEELS wrong to my ear?

Thank you in advance!

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  • 1
    The sentence isn't wrong.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 21:52
  • Thank you, @HotLicks! Are all three constructions (that that day, that day, and that the day) equally correct? None are better than any others? Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 22:03
  • 2
    Understand that "that" has 4-5 distinctly different meanings.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 22:26
  • ... my first clue that that day ... is just as good as ... my first clue that day .... The first that is a complementizer and can be deleted; the second that modifies day and can't be deleted. Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 23:23
  • 1
    A semicolon to the rescue! The fact that it was my forty-sixth birthday should have been my first clue; that day was going to suck. This is why we have them, to break up the rhythm of the piece. Call the author and tell him we have solved the problem.
    – Elliot
    Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 1:39

1 Answer 1

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  1. The fact that it was my forty-sixth birthday should have been my first clue that day was going to suck.

This is, strictly speaking, correct; the "that" here is acting as a determiner for "day," rather than as a marker of clause subordination (in the terminology of Huddleston & Pullum (2002)). You can add in the marker, yielding a second that:

  1. The fact that it was my forty-sixth birthday should have been my first clue that that day was going to suck.

You could also choose a different determiner to avoid this ambiguity:

  1. The fact that it was my forty-sixth birthday should have been my first clue the day was going to suck.

This is largely a matter of taste, but I agree that sentences like (1) sound quite bad. At first, it's easy to misinterpret the first "that" as a marker of subordination, making it sound as if "day" is missing a determiner. Adding both instances of "that" avoids that confusion.

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