English Lesson: How to Use “That”

There’s a bunch of different ways we use “that” in English, ranging from the formal to conversational. Let’s take a moment to review the two usages you’re most familiar with.

First, we can use “that” to identify. Which one? This one? That one? No, that one over there! It’s pretty simple. You point out which object is closer in proximity. Or, if there’s more that one option, you can use “that” to identify the other one.

Second, we can use “that” in adjective clauses/phrases. We know simple adjectives (i.e. happy, sad, old, new, red, orange), but we can give more details if we shy away from using only one word. For instance, “the old car” can be better explained as “the car that has three broken windows”. Then, if we think of it in the context of a sentence: The car that has three broken windows is mine.

You might be wondering what’s the difference between a clause and a phrase. That gets to a more technical grammar point– something that doesn’t really matter in the context of conversation. But here’s two easy examples you can compare and contrast:

  • The book that I borrowed was a best-seller. (adjective clause because “I+borrowed” contains a subject and verb)
  • The girl that is sitting at the table is cute. (adjective phrase because “is sitting” contains only the verb)

The bottom line is adjective clauses and phrases is something you need to distinguish for tests. In real life? Outside of reading? It’s going to be too formal to talk this way. It’s much more common to hear someone say:

  • You know that book I borrowed? It’s a best-seller.
  • That girl by the table is cute.

Short, sweet, and to the point! And that leads us to the third usage– we can use “that” to add emphasis in conversation. Before, we learned how to use “way” to sound real slick in our speaking. We can also use “that” in a similar manner, but in a negative context.

  • This movie wasn’t that good.

Put simply, the movie wasn’t good. But, we added the word “that” for impact. We could’ve also said the movie wasn’t so good or the movie really wasn’t good. “That” will sound the most relaxed and comfortable, and since that should be your goal in pursuing English fluency, it’s the right way to go!


If you’re interested in learning more conversational English like this, connect with Jon to sign up for online private English coaching or face-to-face sessions in Boston. We’ll work on making you sound like a native speaker.

Published by Jon Dao

Formerly, the Conversation Coach

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