whan pronoun
Definitions (Senses and Subsenses) whom
MED online University of Michigan

How does one construe “that” in the phrase “Whan that”? This seems to be the normal construction in ME, but sometimes “Whan” occurs without an accompanying “that”, as when Chaucer begins

“Whan that Aprille with his showres soote”

only to continue

“Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth”.

Please don’t say it’s all down to the meter. I am trying to understand what “that” meant to contemporary speakers both semantically and syntactically. I have the feeling I may be missing something that ought to be obvious.

  • I believe the answer to your question can be found in the link I posted. Usage/meaning N.6
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 8:06
  • Thank you. I assume you mean usage 5. Perhaps more helpful to me is the introduction to the entry which outlines relationship of whanne to hwa. (Spellcheck plays havoc with all this of course.)
    – sks
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 9:16
  • Yes, for some reason I misread it; it's the last note. The intro is interesting and a little intimidating for people who have never studied Middle English such as myself.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 9:20

2 Answers 2


Chaucer's that in whan that is a complementizer for tensed clauses,
just as it is today for tensed complement clauses:

  • I think that I shall never see a poem.
  • The story that Putin will sing at La Scala is probably not true.

It also occurs in restrictive (but not non-restrictive) relative clauses, but there it has changed into another possible relative pronoun with no special meaning, unlike wh-words, which(*who) are restricted in reference and use. Relative pronouns that are not the subject of the relative clause are deletable, and there are lots of odd wrinkles:

  • the man that/who saw you; the man (that/who/whom) you saw; the man you saw (restrictive)
  • the boy, who was sitting on the bike; *the boy, that was sitting on the bike, (non-restrictive)
  • the reason (that/why) he did it; the way (that) he did it; *the way how he did it

But Chaucer used it to mark a tensed adverb clause, and that's not standard English any more. But there are local dialects that still have it, like the North Carolina rural accent that Andy Griffith uses in his routine about football. Listen at 12 seconds or so from the start for

  • before that we set up the tent

which is Chaucer's that, marking an adverb clause as tensed.

  • 1
    Can I point out that the tensed clause that complements extends into the next lines of the poem? “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in switch licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour. Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 12:08
  • 1
    Cf. "Her olde father woll yet make her dine/ Ere that she go, God yeve his herte pine". Troilus and Creseide, Book V.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 16, 2023 at 14:19
  • I never had a problem with the meaning though I had not remembered is as an idiom that had persisted as late as Shakespeare. Rather I cdntthat But I didn’t remember it as A feature
    – sks
    Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 8:15

The OED has an entry on this obsolete use that seems to be periphrastic but idiomatic:

That (conj.)

7. b. Added to relative or interrogative pronouns and adjectives (who, which, what, etc.) and to relative conjunctions (when, where, how, why, etc.). †Also added to the demonstrative adverbs then, there, etc., when used as relatives (obsolete). Now regional or archaic.

lOE Writ of Edward the Confessor (Sawyer 1098) in F. E. Harmer Anglo-Saxon Writs (1952) 219 Ælce mannum gebyreð swyðe rihte ure drihten God luuien..& ælmesdæden georne befellen þurh hwan þæt he of synbænden hine selfne mote alynian.

c1405 (▸c1395) G. Chaucer Canon's Yeoman's Tale (Ellesmere) (1875) l. 570 And in myn herte to wondren I bigan What þat he was.

a1413 (▸c1385) G. Chaucer Troilus & Criseyde (Pierpont Morgan) (1881) ii. l. 36 Euery wyght whiche that to rome went.

a1616 W. Shakespeare Julius Caesar (1623) iii. ii. 92 When that the poore haue cry'de, Cæsar hath wept.

1776 Patie's Wedding in D. Herd Anc. & Mod. Sc. Songs II. 191
When that the carles grew nappy, They danc'd as weel as they dow'd.

1814 Spaniards iv. i, in New Brit. Theatre III. 234 When that the crown..shall bind the brows Of my unnatural brother.

1883 F. Kemble Poems 38 White was their snowy vesture, And shining as the Alps, when that the sun Gems their pale robes with diamonds.

1999 in M. B. Montgomery & J. S. Hall Dict. Smoky Mountain Eng. (2004) 649 I can see why that that would be so.

  • A good reason not to go to dictionaries for syntactic information. It doesn't have anything to do with "adding" anything to anything. It's all movement. Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 16:24

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