Hello, everyone.
Would you please do me a favour? I have trouble understanding the word “that” in the following sentence.

What light is to the eye, that knowledge is to the mind. [from Henry Cowles : The Revelation of John (1871)]  

My questions are as follows:

  1. Is the word “that” is a determiner or a conjunction?
  2. What does the word “that” refer to?
  3. What is the predicative in the part “that knowledge is to the mind”?
Original Post

Hi, Sunshine,

1. "that" is a determiner in that sentence.
2. Having checked the original text (which is really old), no referent seems to be in sight.
3. I'm not sure what you meant to ask here. The structure draws a parallel between both concepts, and the statement looks like a proportion where the two ratios are equal (A is to B as C is to D). "what" refers to some quality which is equal in the relationship between both items in each pair: Light is as vital/useful for the eye as knowledge is vital/useful for the mind. By the way, in other versions of the same dictate "that" is omitted:

Source: The Dictate Book; Being Lessons on Life, Men, and Manners, compiled by G. Hall

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Gustavo, Contributor posted:

Hi, Sunshine,

1. "that" is a determiner in that sentence.
2. Having checked the original text (which is really old), no referent seems to be in sight.
3. I'm not sure what you meant to ask here. The structure draws a parallel between both concepts, and the statement looks like a proportion where the two ratios are equal (A is to B as C is to D). "what" refers to some quality which is equal in the relationship between both items in each pair: Light is as vital/useful for the eye as knowledge is vital/useful for the mind. By the way, in other versions of the same dictate "that" is omitted:

Source: The Dictate Book; Being Lessons on Life, Men, and Manners, compiled by G. Hall

 Thank you very much, GUSTAVO.  It really helps.

sunshine posted:

What light is to the eye, that knowledge is to the mind. [from Henry Cowles : The Revelation of John (1871)] 

Hi, Sunshine and Gustavo,

I agree in essence with your analysis, Gustavo, and would simply like to share how I parse the sentence. Initially the sentence looked wrong to me, but then I imagined hearing it spoken dramatically, with "that" emphasized, as in an old-fashioned sermon, and everything fell into place for me.

I understand "that" to be a pronoun, which does not necessarily contradict the idea that it is a determiner. Pronouns are categorized as determiners in some varieties of modern generative grammar. The important point, however, for me, is that "knowledge" is not the complement of "that" in the sentence.

I understand "that" to be a pronoun that refers to the free relative clause, "what light is to the eye." (Free relative clauses are noun phrases and can be referred to by pronouns.) The main clause then uses topicalization. Instead of the word order "Knowledge is that to the mind," we have "That(,) knowledge is to the mind.

Knowledge is [what light is to the eye / THAT] to the mind.
Knowledge is ___ to the mind what light is to the eye / THAT.
What light is to the eye / THAT, knowledge is ___ to the mind.
What light is to the eye, THAT knowledge is to the mind.

Normally, in modern speech, we'd use the second version, with the extraposed free relative clause and no "that": "Knowledge is to the mind what light is to the eye." The underlying word order -- "Knowledge is what light is to the eye to the mind" -- is too hard to process. Also natural is the third sentence without "that":

  • What light is to the eye, knowledge is to the mind.

Yes, David. Your parsing is perfect.

Here I've found a similar example, taken from The Lives of the Saints, by Reverend Alban Butler:

- What food is to the body, that our thoughts and reflections are to the mind.

According to the text, this means that our thoughts and reflections are as nourishing for the mind as food is for the body. "what" and "that" refer to that nourishing property.

David, Moderator posted:
sunshine posted:

What light is to the eye, that knowledge is to the mind. [from Henry Cowles : The Revelation of John (1871)] 

Hi, Sunshine and Gustavo,

I agree in essence with your analysis, Gustavo, and would simply like to share how I parse the sentence. Initially the sentence looked wrong to me, but then I imagined hearing it spoken dramatically, with "that" emphasized, as in an old-fashioned sermon, and everything fell into place for me.

I understand "that" to be a pronoun, which does not necessarily contradict the idea that it is a determiner. Pronouns are categorized as determiners in some varieties of modern generative grammar. The important point, however, for me, is that "knowledge" is not the complement of "that" in the sentence.

I understand "that" to be a pronoun that refers to the free relative clause, "what light is to the eye." (Free relative clauses are noun phrases and can be referred to by pronouns.) The main clause then uses topicalization. Instead of the word order "Knowledge is that to the mind," we have "That(,) knowledge is to the mind.

Knowledge is [what light is to the eye / THAT] to the mind.
Knowledge is ___ to the mind what light is to the eye / THAT.
What light is to the eye / THAT, knowledge is ___ to the mind.
What light is to the eye, THAT knowledge is to the mind.

Normally, in modern speech, we'd use the second version, with the extraposed free relative clause and no "that": "Knowledge is to the mind what light is to the eye." The underlying word order -- "Knowledge is what light is to the eye to the mind" -- is too hard to process. Also natural is the third sentence without "that":

  • What light is to the eye, knowledge is to the mind.
David, Moderator posted:
sunshine posted:

What light is to the eye, that knowledge is to the mind. [from Henry Cowles : The Revelation of John (1871)] 

Hi, Sunshine and Gustavo,

I agree in essence with your analysis, Gustavo, and would simply like to share how I parse the sentence. Initially the sentence looked wrong to me, but then I imagined hearing it spoken dramatically, with "that" emphasized, as in an old-fashioned sermon, and everything fell into place for me.

I understand "that" to be a pronoun, which does not necessarily contradict the idea that it is a determiner. Pronouns are categorized as determiners in some varieties of modern generative grammar. The important point, however, for me, is that "knowledge" is not the complement of "that" in the sentence.

I understand "that" to be a pronoun that refers to the free relative clause, "what light is to the eye." (Free relative clauses are noun phrases and can be referred to by pronouns.) The main clause then uses topicalization. Instead of the word order "Knowledge is that to the mind," we have "That(,) knowledge is to the mind.

Knowledge is [what light is to the eye / THAT] to the mind.
Knowledge is ___ to the mind what light is to the eye / THAT.
What light is to the eye / THAT, knowledge is ___ to the mind.
What light is to the eye, THAT knowledge is to the mind.

Normally, in modern speech, we'd use the second version, with the extraposed free relative clause and no "that": "Knowledge is to the mind what light is to the eye." The underlying word order -- "Knowledge is what light is to the eye to the mind" -- is too hard to process. Also natural is the third sentence without "that":

  • What light is to the eye, knowledge is to the mind.

Thank you most sincerely, David. It is really a perfect interpretation.

Gustavo, Contributor posted:

Yes, David. Your parsing is perfect.

Here I've found a similar example, taken from The Lives of the Saints, by Reverend Alban Butler:

- What food is to the body, that our thoughts and reflections are to the mind.

According to the text, this means that our thoughts and reflections are as nourishing for the mind as food is for the body. "what" and "that" refer to that nourishing property.

Thank you very much, GUSTAVO.

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