I came across this quote from the movie RocknRolla:

Oh, beauty is a beguiling call to death and I'm addicted to the sweet pitch of its siren. That that starts sweet ends bitter, and that which starts bitter ends sweet.

I understand the metaphor. But I'm confused with the sentence structure of

That that starts sweet ends bitter, and that which starts bitter ends sweet.

Are the first that and the that before 'which starts bitter ends sweet' conjunctions while the second that and which relative pronouns?

  • 1
    Beauty starts by seeming sweet, but ends in bitterness; death looks initially uninviting and bitter, but becomes sweetly attractive as the end draws nigh. But it's "poetry", so you can put your own interpretation on it. My interpretation is the switch from "that" to "which" in the final clause is clumsy. Apr 1, 2012 at 11:22
  • @FumbleFingers Great I get it now. Why not put down your explanation in a form of an answer instead of a comment :) ? It's odd to have an answered question considered unanswered.
    – user19341
    Apr 1, 2012 at 11:42
  • Strictly speaking I think the question is off-topic Lit. Crit., so I don't think it should be formally "Answered" anyway. ELU doesn't generally welcome questions concerning interpretation of song lyrics, poetry, etc. Apr 1, 2012 at 11:47
  • Oh. I've edited the question a bit. Is it still off-topic?
    – user19341
    Apr 1, 2012 at 12:01
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers It seems to me that the edit successfully puts the question on-topic. The fact that the sentence can be analyzed out of context shouldn't mean that adding a little context invalidates the question. (Or maybe your "I think so, yes" was meant to be "Yes, it's better now.".)
    – Alan Munn
    Apr 1, 2012 at 16:45

1 Answer 1


The two 'that's are simply demonstrative pronouns. Each conjunct of your sentence has the same basic structure as:

  • He who hesitates is lost.

In this sentence, the 'he' is a pronoun, and the 'who' is a relative pronoun. In your second conjunct:

  • That which starts bitter ends sweet.

'that' is a pronoun, and 'which' is a relative pronoun.

In the first conjunct:

  • That that starts sweet ends bitter.

the first 'that' is a pronoun. The second 'that' is traditionally called a relative pronoun, but many linguists (including myself) would say that it is simply the subordinating conjunction (or complementizer) 'that'.

  • 1
    No, the two forms are pretty much synonymous.
    – Alan Munn
    Apr 1, 2012 at 14:03
  • 1
    That and which are synonymous/interchangeable in this context, but I still think it's stylistically clunky to switch from one to the other in a sentence that (which?!) is based on semantic and structural symmetry. Apr 1, 2012 at 16:27
  • 2
    I don't disagree - your answer is focussed on exactly the (revised) question. Actually though, I am a little confused - if 'which' is a relative pronoun, why do you say 'that' is a subordinating conjunction (or complementizer)? I can't see any different roles being performed by the two words in this context, so how can they justify different (syntactic?) names? Apr 1, 2012 at 16:43
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    So, in my simple-minded way, should I assume an underlying "That thing which starts sweet ends bitter", where "thing" can be replaced by "that" - then either that word or "which" (but not both) can be deleted? I just knew I was going to get out of my depth here! :) Apr 1, 2012 at 19:17
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Yes, that's the right idea. But 'thing' can be deleted, and you need either (the second) 'that' or 'which' obligatorily in this context because (as in the linked question) the NP in the relative clause is related to the main subject of the relative clause.
    – Alan Munn
    Apr 1, 2012 at 19:22

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