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Hi

(a) It is the first time that we have met.
(b) That was the first time that she had traveled alone.
(c) Yesterday was the first time that Ted swam in the Atlantic Ocean.

In the sentences above,

Q1) Can we change the bold 'that' into 'when'?(in terms of grammaticality)

Q2) Can we change the bold 'that' into 'in which' or 'at which'?(in terms of grammaticality)

Q3) What is the bold 'that' called in grammatical terms? I am curious about its grammatical identity. Is it a 'relativiser' or a content-clause-introducing 'complementiser'(e.g. in 'the fact that I ran away') or anything else? (I know that in this construction, 'that' or 'null' is common. What I wonder about is the grammatical origin or identity, of 'that'.)



Actually, I have consulted many sites as best I can. But I couldn't draw an overall conclusion because there are two conflicting opinions.
https://english.stackexchange....a-is-the-that-clause (especially, Mr. Lawler says a relative pronoun 'when' can be used even though the use is limited to specific circumstances)
https://ell.stackexchange.com/...istened-to-this-song
https://forum.thefreedictionar...ime-that-when-x.aspx
https://ell.stackexchange.com/...-the-first-time-when

And when I searched COCA, there is 7 results of 'the first time in which' and 11 results of 'was the first time when'.

I appreciate your teaching in advance.

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The first sentence is different from the other two and is called "cleft sentence."It is often used to emphasize a particular part of a sentence by placing it in the "it is-clause."  We divide the sentence into two clauses in order to put the emphasis on that part.  For example: It is the "first time" that we have met.  When the part to be emphasized is an adverbial of time or place, "that" cannot be replaced by "when" or "where."  The other two sentences are just normal sentences.  There are no special rules with regard to the use of the relative pronoun or relative adverbial.

@WinD posted:

(a) It is the first time that we have met.
(b) That was the first time that she had traveled alone.
(c) Yesterday was the first time that Ted swam in the Atlantic Ocean.

In the sentences above,

Q1) Can we change the bold 'that' into 'when'? (in terms of grammaticality)

Q2) Can we change the bold 'that' into 'in which' or 'at which'? (in terms of grammaticality)

Q3) What is the bold 'that' called in grammatical terms? I am curious about its grammatical identity. Is it a 'relativiser' or a content-clause-introducing 'complementiser'(e.g. in 'the fact that I ran away') or anything else? (I know that in this construction, 'that' or 'null' is common. What I wonder about is the grammatical origin or identity, of 'that'.)

Hello, WinD—These are probing questions. Since you have already received a number of different views on your questions, I am going to permit myself to think outside the box and propose something new.

First, however, I'd like to assure you that, contrary to what whoever wrote the post above said, (a) is NOT a cleft sentence. The subject, "It," could be changed to the demonstrative "This."

As I see it, if we assume that the "that"-clause is a restrictive modifier in each case, rather than a non-restrictive element (with a different meaning), the "that" cannot felicitously be converted to "when" or "at/in which."

I analyze the "that" as a complementizer, not a relative pronoun or relative adverb, in each case; and, in my opinion, it is not the noun "time" that the "that"-clause modifies in each case, but rather the ordinal numeral ("first").

In effect, I am proposing that, for example, "That was the first time that she had travelled alone" (sentence [b]) is equivalent in meaning to "That was the first-that-she-had-travelled-alone time."

Ordinal numerals are sometimes followed directly by a "that"-clause (or a zero-clause, which is also an option in each of your examples). This lends plausibility to my analysis.

Also, if we change "first" to "only," "when" (as well as "in/at which") become perfectly acceptable: "That was the only time when she had travelled alone." There it does make sense to say the noun "time" is modified (not "only").

As I said in my last post, “It is thefirst time that we have met.” is a cleft sentence. In order to make my statement more convincing, I am going to provide more examples to show how the cleft sentence is used to emphasize different parts of the sentence.

John might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday.

1) It is John that might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday. (to emphasize the subject)

2) It is a new book that John might have bought for Mary yesterday. (to emphasize the object)

3) It is for Mary that John might have bought a new book. (to emphasize adverbial)

4) It was yesterday that John might have bought a new book for Mary. (to emphasize adverbial)

The parts to be emphasized may be even more complicated such as:

1) It was when she was about to go to bed that the telephone rang.

2) It was because it raised so many difficult questions that the book took a long time.

Now let’s compare the sentence under discussion (It is the first time that we have met)with the above examples. It won’t be difficult for us to see that it is a cleft sentence.

[Note: I have edited out the bold lettering you used, p6pafd. -The Moderator]

Last edited by David, Moderator

I analyze the "that" as a complementizer, not a relative pronoun or relative adverb, in each case; and, in my opinion, it is not the noun "time" that the "that"-clause modifies in each case, but rather the ordinal numeral ("first").

In effect, I am proposing that, for example, "That was the first time that she had travelled alone" (sentence [b]) is equivalent in meaning to "That was the first-that-she-had-travelled-alone time."

Ordinal numerals are sometimes followed directly by a "that"-clause (or a zero-clause, which is also an option in each of your examples). This lends plausibility to my analysis.

Also, if we change "first" to "only," "when" (as well as "in/at which") become perfectly acceptable: "That was the only time when she had travelled alone." There it does make sense to say the noun "time" is modified (not "only").

Great parsing, David. I liked the difference you drew between ordinal numbers and "only," and in particular the "That was the first-that-she-had-travelled-alone time" paraphrase to support your explanation.

@f6pafd posted:

As I said in my last post, “It is the first time that we have met.” is a cleft sentence. In order to make my statement more convincing, I am going to provide more examples to show how the cleft sentence is used to emphasize different parts of the sentence.

John might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday.

1) It is John that might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday. (to emphasize the subject)

2) It is a new book that John might have bought for Mary yesterday. (to emphasize the object)

3) It is for Mary that John might have bought a new book. (to emphasize adverbial)

4) It was yesterday that John might have bought a new book for Mary. (to emphasize adverbial)

The parts to be emphasized may be even more complicated such as:

1) It was when she was about to go to bed that the telephone rang.

2) It was because it raised so many difficult questions that the book took a long time.

Now let’s compare the sentence under discussion (It is the first time that we have met)with the above examples. It won’t be difficult for us to see that it is a cleft sentence.

For a cleft sentence to be regarded as such, @f6pafd, it must be possible to replace the emphasized text within the sentence as is. Notice that, in all of your sentences above, you can reinsert what has been fronted without any change:

1) It is John that might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday -> John might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday.

2) It is a new book that John might have bought for Mary yesterday -> John might have bought a new book for Mary.

3) It is for Mary that John might have bought a new book -> John might have bought a new book for Mary.

4) It was yesterday that John might have bought a new book for Mary -> John might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday.

1') It was when she was about to go to bed that the telephone rang -> The telephone rang when she was about to go to bed.

2') It was because it raised so many difficult questions that the book took a long time -> The book took a long time because it raised so may difficult questions.

If we take the sentence under discussion (It is the first time that we have met), we can see that, for a similar transformation to take place, we need to add "for," which shows that "the first time" is a noun phrase complementized by a "that"-clause and not a clefted adverbial. In fact, we don't say:

- We have met the first time.

but

- We have met for the first time.

Last edited by Gustavo, Co-Moderator

Great parsing, David. I liked the difference you drew between ordinal numbers and "only," and in particular the "That was the first-that-she-had-travelled-alone time" paraphrase to support your explanation.

For a cleft sentence to be regarded as such, @f6pafd, it must be possible to replace the emphasized text within the sentence as is. Notice that, in all of your sentences above, you can reinsert what has been fronted without any change:

1) It is John that might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday -> John might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday.

2) It is a new book that John might have bought for Mary yesterday -> John might have bought a new book for Mary.

3) It is for Mary that John might have bought a new book -> John might have bought a new book for Mary.

4) It was yesterday that John might have bought a new book for Mary -> John might have bought a new book for Mary yesterday.

1') It was when she was about to go to bed that the telephone rang -> The telephone rang when she was about to go to bed.

2') It was because it raised so many difficult questions that the book took a long time -> The book took a long time because it raised so may difficult questions.

If we take the sentence under discussion (It is the first time that we have met), we can see that, for a similar transformation to take place, we need to add "for," which shows that "the first time" is a noun phrase complementized by a "that"-clause and not a clefted adverbial. In fact, we don't say:

- We have met the first time.

but

- We have met for the first time.

Thank you very much for your persuasive analysis, which brought me to see the subtle difference between the two types of sentences.

I am sorry for replying late. Thank you all for answering.

Hi, David. I appreciate your answer. I just still cannot understand all the things comprehensively.


For example,
when I apply the concept of 'that' in question being a complementizer,
1) I don't know how to deal with 'It was the first time when I thought more of my life and safety than "company".', 'It was the first time when I could not lean on pre-existing relationships.'(both of which come from COCA), and 'That was the first time when I flew to America,' which is from Mr. Lawler. Are all of these ungrammatical?

Also,
If it is not the noun "time" that the "that"-clause modifies in each case, but rather the ordinal numeral ("first")
2) In phrases like 'the first day when I worked for that company', 'when' cannot be used, and only 'that' or 'zero' can be used because we don't have to care about the noun(whether it is 'time' or 'day' or whatever) and just need to pay attention to the ordinal numeral, I think. However, it is not the case.

So, I am still confused. Would you enlighten me?
Thank you.

@WinD posted:

Hi, David. I appreciate your answer. I just still cannot understand all the things comprehensively.

For example,
when I apply the concept of 'that' in question being a complementizer,
1) I don't know how to deal with 'It was the first time when I thought more of my life and safety than "company".', 'It was the first time when I could not lean on pre-existing relationships.'(both of which come from COCA), and 'That was the first time when I flew to America,' which is from Mr. Lawler. Are all of these ungrammatical?



Hi, WinD—I find all those sentences extremely awkward, if not ungrammatical, including the one authored by your beloved Mr. Lawler.

@WinD posted:

Also,
If it is not the noun "time" that the "that"-clause modifies in each case, but rather the ordinal numeral ("first")
2) In phrases like 'the first day when I worked for that company', 'when' cannot be used, and only 'that' or 'zero' can be used because we don't have to care about the noun(whether it is 'time' or 'day' or whatever) and just need to pay attention to the ordinal numeral, I think. However, it is not the case.

So, I am still confused. Would you enlighten me?

Yes, you do not need to worry about the noun. I find sentences like "That was the first computer/car/house which I bought" equally terrible with "which." Compare: "That was the first computer/car/house (that) I bought."

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