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Practical English Usage, Fourth Edition (Fully Revised International Edition), by Michael Swan has this sentence under subsection 237 relatives: advanced points:

We need a place (that) we can stay for a few days. (BUT NOT We need a house we can stay for a few days.)

What PEU is saying here is that relative adverb where after place can be replaced by that or dropped in an informal style.

But The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Page 1053) by H&P begs to differ:

Relatives introduced by where, by contrast, do not in general alternate with the non-wh type except where the antecedent is a very general noun such as place:

[61] i This is much better than the hotel [where we stayed last year].

ii This is much better than the place [where/(?that) we stayed last year].

The ‘?’ annotation in [ii] applies to the version with that (?the place that we stayed last year); the bare relative (the place we stayed last year) is more acceptable.

In CGEL, the ‘?’ annotation means that the sentence is of questionable grammaticality. That is, CGEL is saying that sentence [ii] with that is of questionable grammaticality, whereas PEU is saying that the quoted sentence with that is grammatical.

Are both PEU and CGEL right about the use of that in their sentences? If so, how can we distinguish between the two sentences? If not, is PEU or CGEL wrong about the use of that in their sentences?

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    Attempting to close the question while failing to leave a single comment is just beyond me.
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 6:42
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    I would say "The place [that] we stayed in or at. Otherwise it sounds odd to me, since place isn't the direct object of stay. Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 9:07
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    One source says questionable, the other says only in informal style. What's the difference? They seem to agree as far as I can tell. Are you looking for further authoritative sources that comment on this question, or usage examples maybe from respected publications? Otherwise, this will run into the realm of opinion.
    – DW256
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 9:25
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    @DW256 In general, I don't think you should conflate "informal" and "of questionable grammaticality". In CGEL, specifically, they have many examples that they treat as "informal", but none of the informal examples receives the '?' annotation. Also, none of the examples receives the '?' annotation in CGEL simply because they're informal. Moreover, PEU treats both the that version and the bare version as "informal", but CGEL puts the '?' annotation only on the that version.
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 11:12
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    Informal means the way people talk most of the time. Formal means when they're reading aloud; it's for writing, not talking. Questionable means possibly ungrammatical, i.e, grammatical for some people but ungrammatical for others. Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 15:18

2 Answers 2

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I

In CGEL, the ‘?’ annotation means that the sentence is of questionable grammaticality. That is, CGEL is saying that sentence [ii] with that is of questionable grammaticality, whereas PEU is saying that the quoted sentence with that is grammatical.

The problem stems from the various points of view held in these sources. First, usage and grammar are not the same thing, even if while doing grammar an author will also consider usage.

(Grammarist) In linguistics, the term usage relates to the habits of language use among a language’s native speakers, particularly with regard to the meanings of words and phrases. Grammar relates to the functions of words, the construction of sentences, and how words combine to make sentences. Usage evolves continually, often rapidly, and is subjective in many ways. Grammar is more rule-based and objective and tends to evolve more slowly. The two subjects are often lumped together, usually under the term grammar, but for people who study and teach about them, they warrant very different approaches.

PEU is concerned essentially with usage, as the title suggests, whereas CGEL has a strictly grammatical point of view. There is yet another criterion a grammarian may refer to, and this one is user acceptability. The fact that native users are not sure about acceptability is symbolized by "?" in CoGEL; there are therefore two important types of usage: widely accepted usage and usage that is still open to question by a significant proportion of the users (let's call it "unsure usage" for the sake of referring to it). It is such usage that might be characterized by such comments as the one made above by user Kate Bunting (I would say "The place [that] we stayed in or at. Otherwise it sounds odd to me, since place isn't the direct object of stay.). Here is what the grammarians who wrote CoGEL have to say about the use of relatives in the present context (note that the symbol "?" concerns acceptability, more exactly, "unsure acceptability").

With a general antecedent, such as place, we may find the following patterns, which however are not acceptable to all speakers:
• (?)That's the place she stays when she's in London. [1]
• (?)That's the place she works. [2]
• (?)That's the place she studies. [3]

However, a final at […] would be fully acceptable, at least in familiar usage:
• That's the place she stays at when she's in London. [1a]
• That's the place she works at. [2a]
• That's the place she studies at. [3a]

With a generalized antecedent such as way, expressing direction, we usually have zero rather than that:

  • Was that the way she went? ['Was that where she went?']

So, PEU is not saying that the sentence with "that" (only "that") is grammatical but instead that it is fully acceptable and they stand in contradiction with CoGEL since the grammarians of that latter grammar assert that this is not yet a fully accepted construction. CGEL is not to be questioned since they seem to place themselves on the level of strict grammar and that the point that they would most certainly make (not a direct object) is correct.

II

Are both PEU and CGEL right about the use of that in their sentences? If so, how can we distinguish between the two sentences? If not, is PEU or CGEL wrong about the use of that in their sentences?

Were they using one and the same criterion for determining idiomaticity, one of the two only can be wrong, but one of them must be. If it is PEU, this is so on the ground of the possible evidence that could be read in CGEL and CoGEL, the former only contesting (rightly) grammaticality and therefore denying the possible reality of a usage tending towards acceptability and the second recognizing at most an unsure usage (and thereby acknowledging implicitly a breach of grammar). If it is CGEL, this is so on the ground of their failure to evidence a well accepted usage that makes of such phrases as "place they go" true idioms of the language. As it is likely that there is no such common criterion neither is right or wrong; what remains certain is that those forms have gained in acceptability to an important extent, as CoGEL acknowledges.

A distinction as to register is a matter of personal choice for the time being, but I feel that the impression of oddness is bound to surface one day or other in the mind of the reader that has become sufficiently familiar with the language.

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  • I'm also aware of CoGEL's treatment of the issue that you've cited. There, they have presented "Pattern 6: antecedent+ zero relative + zero preposition" and "Pattern 7: antecedent+ that+ zero preposition" in the previous page, but they only discussed Pattern 6 for the place antecedent, which they say is "not acceptable to all speakers". But somehow they failed to discuss Pattern 7 for the place antecedent, which is the issue of the OP.
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 1:32
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    And I think usage changes more rapidly in this type of grammar than others (e.g., article usage), and that CoGEL might be too old-fashioned to be reliable.
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 1:35
  • Also, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (H&P's short version of CGEL) lists a place that we can relax as a legitimate example. Go figure.
    – JK2
    Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 2:12
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+50

A few cursory searches in COCA seem to mostly favor the where-relatives over that when appearing with head noun place, and the version with nothing (-) over that in all cases.

place * PRON LIVE .

2 that vs 33 where vs 27 (-)

place * PRON STAY .

0 that vs 1 where vs 2 (-)

place * PRON BE born .

0 that vs 27 where vs 5 (-)

place * PRON SLEEP .

0 that vs 6 where vs 0 (-)

place * PRON DIE .

0 that vs 7 where vs 3 (-)

place * PRON GO .

6 that vs 3 where vs 40 (-)

place * PRON WORK .

2 that vs 20 where vs 13 (-)

place * PRON MEET .

0 that vs 2 where vs 1 (-)

Though far from exhaustive, the data above does support the CGEL view that that is less acceptable than nothing at all.

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