Overuse of the word "that" in casual conversation
November 26, 2012 6:35 AM   Subscribe

Linguists, is there a name for this annoying trend, and can we point to where/when it originated: Overusing the word "that" without first defining what you are talking about?

I've seen this in various places lately, but it really rankled me on a recent Southwest flight, when the flight attendant was giving instructions on stowing bags:

"Go ahead and put that large bag in that overhead compartment, and put that smaller bag in that space below your seat."

There's four different uses of the word "that," without first defining what "that" is. While I instinctively know what they're saying, it feels lazy and sloppy to me.

So, is this a thing that there's a name for? Did it originate in any particular place (book, movie, trend, etc.)?
posted by jbickers to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Having studied linguistics, I would say that the "that" in these scenarios is implicitly defined: it means that one there; i.e. the one in front of you. The advertisement extrapolates the usage by implicitly asking you to imagine these things as being in front of you.

"That" used as a modifier is different than "that"used as a pronoun; it does not require an explicit definition previous to its use.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:47 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

In those cases, "that" is a modifier, not a pronoun in need of defining. Which large bag? That one. Which smaller bag? That one.

It's no different from the way "that" is used in the expression "Turn that smile upside-down." Which smile? That one.
posted by emelenjr at 6:53 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It would be unclear if the flight attendant had said, "Put that in the overhead compartment." In that case, "that" is a pronoun that hasn't been defined yet.
posted by emelenjr at 6:55 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I get the implicit nature of this example I gave ... but it seems like this is being done a LOT more, very recently. I suppose that's probably confirmation bias, but it still seems sloppy. For instance, when she's addressing a plane full of people, some of them might not have a large bag. What's the "that" for that person?

(I realize that I am most likely overthinking this. But something about this usage just feels very jarring and lazy to me.)
posted by jbickers at 6:55 AM on November 26, 2012

This use of "that" gives the sentence kind of an informal, folksy vibe. Southwest is all about that vibe. If you've noticed it more in general, my theory is that formality in everyday speech (and dress and manners and so on) seems to relax as the generations progress and new social norms take hold, and the longer you live, the more everyone around you will appear to you to be a presumptuous slob.
posted by milk white peacock at 7:10 AM on November 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Yeah, this bothers me too, and I disagree with ocherdraco and emelenjr. It is a modifier, yes, but that's not the interesting thing about the word "that" used in this context: it doesn't point to a specific object but rather serves to identify a sort of archetypal object, and perversely ceases to be a specifier at all.

In other words, what the flight attendant really means is "everyone, put your big bags in the overhead compartment and your small bags under the seat", but the choice of language gives a very weak impression of being spoken to individually.
posted by downing street memo at 7:12 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

In this specific case (over the PA I assume), the phrasing is designed to makes the flight attendant's instructions seem more personal, even though they are directed at everyone. The same thing is done on radio and TV, e.g., "Don't touch that dial!", "Are you tired of that smelly trash can?", etc. They want the listener to think about their specific luggage, dial, trash can, not just that large luggage in the abstract belongs in the overhead compartment. This is the sort of problem that flight attendants deal with every day; it's really difficult to get people to think about the instructions they're being given, so every little bit of phrasing trickery helps.

done a LOT more, very recently

The recency illusion is very very common with language.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:17 AM on November 26, 2012 [12 favorites]

There's four different uses of the word "that," without first defining what "that" is.

That isn't what is going on in your example. In your example, "that" is being used as an adjective e.g. "that large bag".

You seem to wish to complain about "that" being used as a pronoun without an antecedent e.g. "that is wonderful", but that is not what happened on your recent aerotravel. What would you have had the stewardess say? Fill in the blanks:

"Go ahead and put _____ large bag in ____ overhead compartment, and put ____ smaller bag in ____ space below your seat."
posted by Tanizaki at 7:19 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

...that generic item...
I've seen this in UK advertising since the days of Dorothy Sayers.
posted by Namlit at 7:22 AM on November 26, 2012

I hear a lot of quirky speech patterns coming from flight attendants and tour guides. I think it's because they are saying the same thing over and over, and they have it loosely memorized, so some weird cadences creep in after the 500th time they give their speech.

The one I notice most is when they emphasize the 'to be' verb oddly. Normally they'd say "We are glad you chose Delta, and we welcome you to the flight." But they sometimes say "We are glad you chose Delta, and we do welcome you to the flight."
posted by agropyron at 7:26 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Grammatically speaking, milk white peacock and recency illusion are correct. It's used somewhat improperly to be folksy AND for emphasis (I actually think it's more the latter than the former). I also don't like it, but what can you do, language constantly evolves. Probably 95% of people, include many people on this site, say "I could care less", but that's technically wrong (completely, 100% the opposite of what it is correct) and should be "I couldn't care less".
posted by Dansaman at 7:52 AM on November 26, 2012

Sometimes people are imprecise, or cannot summon the words they need to make their meaning clear. Sometimes they are lazy and offload the burden of figuring out what they want onto their audience.

It's hard to know the difference, sometimes.

I have a close relative like this, who uses "that" as an undefined pronoun all the time, as well as "the thing" for variety. As a child, it used to stress me out because this person (an elder of mine) would be Meaningfully Displeased if I didn't decipher what they wanted. So sometimes this usage bothers me as an adult because in my head There Will Be Consequences if I don't magically understand what someone isn't saying.

But when it does, I remind myself that, as an adult, I can use my words and also expect others to use their words as well, and I can ask for clarification when appropriate rather than trying to get inside the other person's head.

It could be worth considering whether something in your past might be the source of your own annoyance, too.
posted by gauche at 7:56 AM on November 26, 2012

There's a lot of misinformation in this thread. "That" is under no circumstances that I'm aware of, an adjective, for example.

I think there's two possibilities. First, the flight attendant was actually pointing at something and you didn't notice -- where pointing can take the form of something as minimal as eye movements. But more likely from the way it is described, this is the same "that" that shows up in constructions like "go ahead and buy that car that you've always wanted", or "How is that nose of yours?" (example question from a nurse to a patient from the work mentioned below). (google search for similar phrases, this is highly frequent.) In this use, "that" is not acting as a pronoun or deictic, and correspondingly doesn't require an antecedent or a pointing act.

These uses have been discussed under the heading of "emotive demonstrative" uses by various linguists, most recently (to my knowledge) by Lynsey Wolter in her dissertation. Wolter's claim is that they "indicate that (the speaker assumes that) the discourse participants share some knowledge or emotion about the referent of the demonstrative." In appropriate uses this can lead to a feeling of "solidarity" or something, but it can be inappropriately familiar, which I think is what would be going on here. In fact Wolter gives two examples along the lines of the one in the post, where the use is acceptable in that we know what it means, but judged as "intrusive" or rude: from a flight attendant, "In preparation for landing, please fasten those seatbelts and make sure those tray tables are stowed." From NPR: "Support public radio by sending in that check today!" (Actually the nose example above I got from there as well, though I think it might have come from earlier literature.) This kind of emotive demonstrative is probably best when the speaker and hearer are reasonably close, or the speaker is being very solicitous, or something along these lines.

So if you want a name for it from the linguistics literature, it is an emotive demonstrative used in an overly familiar way. This kind of thing is a good candidate for confirmation bias, exactly because it can feel jarring. But I haven't personally noticed any trends.
posted by advil at 8:24 AM on November 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

In the flight attendant example, if it is over the PA, I think there is an unspoken "of yours" clause in there. "Put that large bag [of yours] in the overhead compartment." It's a bit more folksy than "Put your large bag in the overhead compartment."
posted by smackfu at 9:45 AM on November 26, 2012

There's a lot of misinformation in this thread. "That" is under no circumstances that I'm aware of, an adjective, for example.

The Oxford English Dictionary disagrees; for example (this is just one of several adjectival definitions):
that, pron.1, adj., and adv.

B. adj. Demonstrative determiner. Pl. as in I.
a. The simple demonstrative used (as adjective in concord with a n.), to indicate a thing or person either as being actually pointed out or present, or as having just been mentioned and being thus mentally pointed out.
posted by mbrubeck at 12:16 PM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

(In the examples here, "that" can be called a "demonstrative determiner" or a "demonstrative adjective." I think this difference in terminology is the source of the confusion over whether it is an "adjective" or not.)
posted by mbrubeck at 12:21 PM on November 26, 2012

The Oxford English Dictionary disagrees

Ok, it is true that in traditional grammar from the earlier parts of the 20th century (incl. the OED, in terms of its assumptions about grammar) all determiners are subsumed under adjectives, and so I can see that people might have encountered the term used this way.

This is basically an archaic definition, and not used in current (by which I mean probably >1965) research on language, so I basically stand by my categorization of it as misinformation, despite the hallowed source. If you would like an extensive discussion of this see CGEL chapter 6 section 2.4.2, which is unfortunately not available online. But the punchline is that there isn't really a coherent definition for adjectives that includes determiners, and demonstratives display effectively none of the characteristic properties of adjectives except appearing in a noun phrase. To give you an example, one fairly key property of most adjectives is that they co-occur with determiners (incl. articles; "the tall student"). For example, numerals can act as both adjectives and determiners ("two students" / "the two students"). But demonstratives in cannot ("the tall student", "that (tall) student", but *"the that student".) Other properties that are characteristic of adjectives that demonstratives lack: ability to take gradable morphology, ability to be themselves modified (except in few idioms like "all that"), ability to appear post-nominally, ability to be preceded by anything in an NP (a generalization of my earlier point), ability to be used predicatively, ability to be iterated.
posted by advil at 2:02 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

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