Annals of non-restrictive ‘that’

May 17, 2012

You’ll seldom see that used with a comma to set off a non-restrictive clause. Normally which does this job. (Which is also fine in restrictive clauses, by the way, despite the pseudo-rule that forbids it. The first link explains the terminology.)

My earlier post on non-restrictive that gives an idea of how rare it is, and provides an ambiguous example from Penelope Fitzgerald; I later updated with more clearcut literary examples. This post notes a few more instances of non-restrictive that used in books I recently read and re-read, respectively.

In Everest: Impossible Victory, Peter Habeler writes:

The men struck their Camp VI at 8200 metres, that is well below the place at which Mallory and Irvine were last seen.

And Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media:

The rapid increase of traffic brought in the railway, that accommodated a more specialized form of wheel than the road.

The wheel, that began as extended feet, took a great evolutionary step into the movie theatre.

Habeler’s line is ambiguous: that could either be a relative pronoun (or perhaps a subordinator), used where we would expect to see which; or it could be a demonstrative, which means there’s a comma splice where we would expect a dash or full stop.

You could argue the same for the first McLuhan line, but you’d be on even shakier grounds, I think. My feeling is that these thats are non-restrictive relativizers. I’d be curious to know how you read them.

That elusive non-restrictive ‘that’

November 14, 2011

Last month, I wrote about the unfounded “rule” limiting which to non-restrictive clauses and that to restrictive clauses. I hoped to show that restrictive which is common, standard, and unobjectionable, and has been for centuries. I’ve been updating the post with subsequent commentary from editors and linguists.

Restrictive which is ubiquitous, but non-restrictive that is very rare. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has several citations, including Shakespeare (“Fleance his son, that keeps him company”) and Oliver Goldsmith (“Age, that lessens the enjoyment of life, increases our desire of living”). The same source says the construction is used mostly by poets.

On Language Log in 2005, Geoffrey Pullum posted the following data from the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Note: integrated relative = restrictive; supplementary relative = non-restrictive).

The remarkable bottom-row figures will have caught your eye. Pullum describes finding a non-restrictive that as “like spotting the syntactic analog of an ivory-billed woodpecker”.

So you’ll understand why I felt a moment of excitement when I read what I thought was a genuine example in the wild: specifically, in The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (chapter 34, “The Garden-House”):

Then as he dried himself he repeated, ‘Never does the heart sigh in vain, Justen,’ and she scarcely knew whether to be unhappy or not. In her mouth was something bitter, that tasted like the waters of death.

Reading it again, though, I decided it was more likely a restrictive clause, albeit one set off by an unusual comma. The comma supplies a pause, but it probably doesn’t mark a supplementary relative clause. That is, Fitzgerald’s line is equivalent to this:

In her mouth was something bitter that tasted like the waters of death. [restrictive]

and not this:

In her mouth was something bitter, which tasted like the waters of death. [non-restrictive]

What do you think?


My excitement has diminished as I’ve become more accustomed to seeing the construction. I recently read Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering, which has several instances of non-restrictive that. Here are two of them:

Ada bringing us for red lemonade into a pub, that had a black roof with huge letters of white written across it.

If Ada believed in anything she believed in this persistence, that other people might call the soul.

And another, this one from Obstinate Uncle Otis, a short story by Robert Arthur:

Maybe he thought he c’d ignore that lightning, like he ignores Willoughby’s barn across the road, or Marble Hill, that his cousin Seth lawed away from him so that now he won’t admit there is any such hill.

A recent post on Language Log has an example from a comic strip, while Alex Segal, in a comment, shares several examples of non-restrictive that and discusses their distribution and grammaticality.

That which is restrictive

October 18, 2011

This is quite a long post about a distinction some people make between that and which as relative pronouns — an oft-disputed point of English usage. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re familiar with the territory.

Restrictive clauses (aka defining or integrated relative clauses) provide information that’s essential to a sentence. Take this one:

The bike that I keep in the garage is ideal for short trips.

The underlined clause is integral to the sentence, for reasons context would normally make clear. For example, there may be an implication that I have access to other bikes, so the restrictive clause defines or restricts what bike I’m talking about.

Non-restrictive clauses (also non-defining or supplementary relative clauses) are bound less tightly to the sentence: they can be removed without changing its essential point. Thus:

The bike, which I keep in the garage, is ideal for short trips.

Here, there’s only one bike I could be referring to, and the information about where I keep it is supplementary, non-defining, dispensable.

In speech, non-restrictive clauses are intoned separately; in writing, this separation is marked by punctuation: normally commas, as above, sometimes dashes or parentheses.

There’s a good case for calling non-restrictive clauses supplementary relative clauses, and restrictive ones integrated relative clauses. But these terms are quite new, and in this post I use the more familiar names.

So far so uncontroversial. Then there are sentences like this:

Read the rest of this entry »

Even stealthier that I thought

May 5, 2010

Typing that when we mean than is a frequent typo partly because that is such a common word. And unlike teh, it’s a valid word and therefore less conspicuous. That is a background word, a bit player, typically only a part of some larger sense.

There are exceptions, times when that is brought to the foreground (“To be, or not to be, that is the question”), but it usually remains under our reading radar. So when it sneaks in where than rightfully belongs, its familiarity means it can easily go unnoticed.

Last October I wrote about this that-for-than typo, investigating among other things its typographic, mechanical, and phonetic aspects. Since then I’ve noticed it quite often, especially in informal writing but also in edited prose from reputable publishers and organisations.

Recently I was reading an article by David Crystal called “What is Standard English?” (PDF, 1.8 MB) when I came upon this passage:

The image is from the article as it appears in Concord (spelled Concorde on Mr Crystal’s website), apparently a biannual publication by the English Speaking Union. The typo does not appear in the same text in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language:

I don’t evangelise about any old typo, but I’m consistently impressed by this one’s ability to sneak past so many careful eyes. And, as I noticed when MobyLives mentioned the phenomenon, the instinct to correct it when it’s spotted is powerful too — even when the correctness is incorrect. If you’re a writer or editor, it’s one to watch out for.


Further examples appear in the following books: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, by George Lakoff:

Green English, by Loreto Todd:

Beethoven, by J. W. N. Sullivan:

Southern Irish English, by Séamas Moylan:

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, by Constance Hale (review copy, so it may have been spotted later):

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch - that than

Three times in Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling:

Octavia Butler - Fledgling - that than

Octavia Butler - Fledgling - that than 2

Octavia Butler - Fledgling - that than 3

Erik Davis’s Nomad Codes:

erik davis - nomad codes - that than

Séamas Ó Catháin’s The Bedside Book of Irish Folklore:

Seamas O Cathain - bedside book of irish folklore - that than

For Who the Bell Tolls, by David Marsh:

for who the bell tolls - david marsh - that than typo

‘The Ballroom of Romance’, in The Distant Past by William Trevor:

William Trevor, The Ballroom of Romance - that than

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris (Little, Brown, 2008)

david sedaris, engulfed in flames - that than typo

Herman Koch, The Dinner:

herman kock the dinner - that than typo

Chris Cleave, The Other Hand:

the other hand - that than typo

Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival:

archaic revival than that

Benedict Kiely, A Journey to the Seven Streams (title story):

Jimmy Burns, Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona:

Julia O’Faolain, ‘Chronic’, in Melancholy Baby:

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond:

Sara Paretsky, ‘A Taste of Life’, in Reader, I Murdered Him, edited by Jen Green:

Excerpt: 'You don't want to paint the first night your mother is in town,' Sylvia said archly, inviting Jerry to compare mother with daughter, indeed pausing for the expected remark ('You can't be her mother – if anything she looks older that [sic] you!') Jerry said nothing, but blushed more than ever.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable by Sean McMahon and Jo O’Donoghue:

"CAB [Criminal Assets Bureau] collected more that [sic] €23 million in tax and interest charges in 2001."

George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant:

"The aerial-delivery vehicles could not go more that [sic] a few hundred miles and could not threaten the United States."

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind, quoting Kafka in translation:

Randy Allen Harris, The Linguistic Wars:

"... but the content was more intransigent that anything in Postal's paper ..."

Jacek Hugo-Bader, White Fever, quoting the 1957 book Report from the Twenty-First Century:

"But there can be no doubt that in the early twenty-first century they will be no more dangerous that pneumonia is now."

Ryan Holmberg, The Translator Without Talent:

"Another lesson: It is the rare individual than can do better than a competent team."

Julie Sedivy, Memory Speaks:

'... The number of people they spoke their language with turned out to be even more important that [sic] the number of hours logged in that language.'

William Gaunt, Turner:

'From this time Turner was more nomadic that [sic] ever, while the accumulated canvases and drawings at Queen Anne Street began to moulder in neglect and decay.'

Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia:

'...When Tony got lax and you got lax, you thought Sonny was more important that [sic] I am.'

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin:

'The dinner cost a hundred units. Shevek ate very little of it, having eaten at noon, but he gave in to Vea's urging and drank two or three glasses of wine, which was pleasanter that [sic] he had expected it to be, and seemed to have no deleterious effect on his thinking.'

Stuart Sutherland, Irrationality:

'...dismissal, particularly of senior staff, should be much more common that [sic] it at present is ...'

And on reputable websites such as BBC News:

BBC news that than typo

The New York Review of Books:


The Irish Times:

Irish Times again:

irish times that than typo feb 2016

The Guardian:

Time Out:

timeout - best james bond movies article - typo that than


wired - that than typo


time - captain philips review - that than typo


RTE that than typo

An example from a linguistics paper on contrastive reduplication:

The Economist style guide’s Twitter account:

economist style guide - than that + offence

Subtitles in Andrzej Żuławski’s 1971 film The Third Part of the Night:

Two young men in suits sit beside one another. The near man, in a dark suit, is shown in 1/4 profile. The other man, near the centre of the shot, is in a grey suit, almost faces the camera, and says: "The fate of non-existent people has never been more important that [sic] it is now."

And in the 2019 Spanish film El Hoyo, aka The Platform:

A dishevelled man stands at a sink in a dirty room, facing left and away. He says, 'I understand, but we have a responsibility to those...'

The same man at the sink continues, '...less fortunate that [sic] us this month.'

And the political drama Borgen (season 1, episode 3):

Image from Borgen shows two women – politicans in Denmark – sitting with tea at a round wooden table in a hotel. The woman facing the camera, who wears a smart blue suit, says, 'You haven't got the money. Less that [sic] DKK 9b won't hack it.'

The reverse typo than for that also occurs, as in this example from the Guardian:

And this one from Don Winslow’s novel Isle of Joy:


The Aspern Papers by Henry James, Penguin Popular Classics edition:

"I hurried downstairs with her, and on the way she told me than [sic] an hour after I quitted them in the afternoon Miss Bordereau had had an attack of 'oppression,' a terrible difficulty in breathing."