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We saw that when Chinese warships turned up off the coast of Alaska, within U.S. territorial waters, at the same time that President Obama was on the ground here.

quoted from CNN student news that can be found here.

The syntax of the sentence above is:
we saw that when S+V, at the same time that S+V.

Is this grammatically corect? I thought it should be rather something like 'we saw that when S+V, at the same time, S+V',

Thank you in advance!

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The sentence should be easier to understand if we read the first that as "that event". – Damkerng T. Jan 4 at 11:57
"We saw that..." There, that is a relative pronoun, referring back to territorial disputes. – TRomano Jan 4 at 11:58
@TRomano: Surely not a relative pronoun! – ruakh Jan 4 at 18:58
@ruakh: a demonstrative. Not sure why this morning I read it as introducing the when-clause. Hmmm... – TRomano Jan 4 at 20:29
@TRomano I made the same mistake. Luckily I noticed before anybody called me on it! – StoneyB Jan 4 at 22:22
up vote 11 down vote accepted

It's grammatically fine, but awkward because the first that is ambiguous. When I first encountered it I took it to be a subordinator (subordinating conjunction), but in fact it's a demonstrative pronoun, pointing to an event which preceded it in the article. The second that is a relativizer (relative pronoun), employed in a comparative construction the same ... that .

Parse it like this, with stacked adverbials:

 We saw that [=that event]
     when Chinese warships turned up   off the coast of Alaska, 
                                       within U.S. territorial waters
                                       at the same time 
                                         that [=as] President Obama was on the ground here.
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To help parse, shouldn't the first part have a comma? "We saw that, when..." – user151841 Jan 4 at 14:46
@user151841 That would help, although I generally object to using pointing which does not reflect speech. Moreover, it won't necessarily disambiguate that, which can still be parsed as a subordinator. I'd say something like "We saw that happen when &c" – StoneyB Jan 4 at 14:49
the first "that" is actually referring to concern, specifically The US's concern about China's military, rather than an event. – Rick Jan 4 at 21:20

This is ambiguous in writing but completely unambiguous in speech. In the example sentence that is a noun phrase, not a subordinator. It is easier to see how the sentence works if we change the word that. This word talks about something in the previous sentence. Let's use the word this, which works the same way, instead:

  • We saw this [when Chinese warships turned up off the coast of Alaska within U.S. territorial waters, at the same time that President Obama was on the ground here].

This sentence is a transcript of a spoken report by a journalist for CNN. When we read the sentence it is easy to think that the word that is a subordinator. Compare the following sentences:

  • I saw that yesterday.
  • I saw that she had already left.

In the first sentence that means that thing. In the second sentence the word that introduces a new clause. Notice that in the second sentence the verb SEE changes its meaning; it means something like NOTICE or UNDERSTAND.

In the Original Poster's example, the word that means that thing, it doesn't introduce a new clause. Now, when we read the sentence, the word that is ambiguous until we get to the end of the sentence and then realise that it cannot be the subordinator. However, this sentence is from a spoken report. In the actual speech, this sentence will not be ambiguous.

The reason it won't be ambiguous is that the noun phrase that is always stressed and has a full vowel, the same vowel that we find in the word cat. The IPA looks like this: /ðæt /. The subordinator that is almost never stressed and is almost always pronounced /ðət/ with the same vowel that we find at the beginning of the word America. We almost never confuse these two words in speech.

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