May 3rd, 2006
Double that / wildlife is or are
by Barbara Wallraff
Olaf Kraulis, of Gooderham, Ontario, writes: “My best friend is a stickler for grammar, and a formidable one at that. He is a senior lawyer, actively engaged in grammatical disputes with draftsmen (or draftspersons, perhaps) of legislation. In one of his recent forays he included the sentence ‘But I don’t know that that necessarily follows.’ Can his double ‘that’ possibly be correct? I will abide by your judgment, whatever it turns out to be. My friend will abide by your judgment if you side with him.”
Dear Olaf: Well, then you’re both willing to abide by my judgment -- how nice. Sometimes “that” just connects “I don’t know” to what comes next -- as in “I don’t know that you’re going to like what I say.” And sometimes it has another role. It can be what you don’t know: “I don’t know that.” Or it can be the subject of a clause about what you don’t know -- as the second “that” is in your friend’s sentence. When “that” has the role of subject, readers might mistake it for a connecting “that” unless you give them one of those too. “I don’t know that necessarily follows” is momentarily confusing. Whenever the lack of a “that” is more of a stumbling block than two “that”s in a row, put them both in.
Michael McSunas, of Grosse Pointe, Mich., writes: “Is ‘wildife’ singular or plural? Is it proper to say ‘wildlife is’ or ‘wildlife are’?”
Dear Michael: Try “wildlife is” first, but anytime that sounds awful, it’s OK to say “wildlife are.” And there you have a simple answer that was anything but simple to find out.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.