I have this sentence:

There is an engine inside me that keeps saying "someone must be at the top, why isn't that you?"

Should I write that or leave it out?

I know both ways are correct, but I am asking for the most most most most most formal way.

  • 3
    As a native American English speaker, the sentence would sound awkward without "that" to modify "keeps." Either "There is an engine inside me, saying...'" or, "There is an engine inside me that keeps saying..." would sound natural, but "There is an engine inside me keeps saying..." sounds off.
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 20:58
  • @jwpat7 where is the capitalization please? i have to capital just the There, am i right? please help me in these things, i have test in 1 month Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 21:00
  • 1
    Marco, someone should be capitalized because it's the first word of a quoted sentence. Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 21:13
  • 2
    Actually I don't think it is correct to remove that here... There are certainly some cases where you can, but that doesn't always have the same usage/meaning, and I'm pretty sure it is required here. (It certainly sounds wrong without it to me!)
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 21:21
  • 1
    Cross-posting the exact same question to both ELU and ELL without telling people you've done so is considered abusive. Please don't do it.
    – user230
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 0:03

4 Answers 4


You can't omit that when it's a subject, or your sentence becomes ungrammatical in standard English.

In this case, that is the subject of a that-relative clause:

There is an engine inside me
  [ that keeps saying "someone must be at the top, why isn't that you?" ]that-relative clause

In particular, it's the subject of the verb keeps. So you can't omit it, and there's no formal vs. informal distinction to be made.

  • I won't actually downvote, because there's a lot of truth in what you say. But I think it's a bit OTT to say you can't delete relative pronouns serving as subjects. People do it all the time, particularly in casual speech. It's just that in OP's exact context, it's not suitable if he wants to be meticulously "formal and correct". Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 23:38
  • 1
    Well, obviously you can do anything you want. You can say "I go store. Thog proud go store!" But it's non-standard to omit that when it's a subject.
    – user230
    Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 23:39
  • This one will run and run. You think there's a set of rules called grammar which somehow exist in a context beyond actual usage, whereas I think grammar is more a post-hoc attempt to codify pre-existing usage. Your straw man examples would be considered "ignorant/illiterate" by any native speaker, but let's face it - who but the most extreme pedant would seriously take issue with "There was a time I wanted {to have children}", for example? Commented Nov 1, 2013 at 23:51
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers That isn't a subject in your example. It's the non-wh counterpart of "when I wanted to have children" → "I wanted to have children then", where the gap represents an adjunct of time; it's replaced by that, which is fronted and then deleted, which is possible because it's not a subject. (And your comment is a mischaracterization.)
    – user230
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 0:08
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers I tried to put together some justification in a comment, but it turned into five comments, and then I had to edit and re-post them because I'd made so many grammatical errors. I hope I managed to get the point across, nonetheless!
    – user230
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 14:34

Usually relative pronouns are preserved in the formal language. However, in this particular case, it would not be grammatical to take out the relative pronoun at all, since the relative pronoun is in the subject position in the relative clause and not followed by a form verb "be".

  • Actually some dialects do allow omission of a subject relative pronoun. But not the standard language(s).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 0:29

Most native speakers probably would consider it inappropriate to delete the relative pronoun "that" here.

It's not really a matter of "grammar" as such, because there are many contexts where that, who, which, etc. can (and often, should) be deleted. But on average, such deletions aren't so common in formal registers - so much so that less competent writers are sometimes guilty of including too many.

To illustrate the formal/informal divide in respect of this construction, consider...

There is a man wants [to meet you]. formal - 6 results in Google Books
There's a man wants [to meet you]. informal 3580 results
There is a man who wants [to meet you]. formal, "correct" - 120,000 results

Note that one shouldn't take this idea of "that" = "correct" too far. Consider...

1: There was a girl I knew at school [who used to blah blah]
2: There was a girl that I knew at school [who used to blah blah]

There are at least a handful of results for #1 there, which sounds like normal fluent English to me. And whilst I don't think #2 is "wrong" (some may actually say only #2 is "right"), I'd have to say it sounds a little "over-precise" to me. And there are no results for it in Google Books, which I think backs me up on that.

EDIT: Apart from the not really a matter of "grammar" bit, I stand by what I've said above, and I think it's relevant to note that the rule You can't omit that when it's a subject isn't universally observed in casual/dialectal speech. But overall, I'm in no doubt @snailboat's answer is more accurate (and concise) than mine.

  • No one is saying "that" = "correct", so there's nothing to take too far. That can be omitted when it's not a subject (as in the last example, where it's an object) or in some non-standard dialects.
    – user230
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 13:49
  • Examples from A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, where the relativized elements are respectively: (1) a subject, (2) an object, (3) a complement of a preposition, (4) an adjunct of time, (5) an adjunct of place, and (6) an adjunct of reason: (1) some friends [who saw her], (2) a key [which she found], (3) those books [which I referred to], (4) the day [when you were born], (5) a place [where you can relax], (6) the reason [why she got angry].
    – user230
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 14:32
  • These examples can be replaced with that-relatives, which are non-wh counterparts. In these examples, I'll indicate the location of the gap that's co-indexed with that explicitly: (1) some friends [that ____ saw her], (2) a key [(that) she found ____], (3) those books [(that) I referred to ____], (4) the day [(that) you were born ____], (5) a place [(that) you can relax ____], (6) the reason [(that) she got angry ____]. Parentheses around that indicate that it is optional; it is not optional when the gap is in subject position.
    – user230
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 14:32
  • The non-wh counterpart isn't always available, however, which makes the matter of omitting relative pronouns more complicated when you talk about them in general, rather than talking specifically about that (like we are in this question). For example, a wh-relative is required to represent adjuncts of place when the head noun doesn't suggest location. Here's an example from the same book: This is the web page where the claim was first made, not *This is the web page the claim was first made.
    – user230
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 14:33
  • It's good that you're trying to describe the usage you see. Unfortunately, you gave up too early and came to the conclusion that no descriptive rules could be found ("It's not really a matter of 'grammar' as such"). It is a matter of grammar, and you can find the descriptive rules in your grammar of choice; see e.g. The Syntactic Phenomena of English (2nd ed.) p.433: "One well-known restriction on internal syntax that applies only to bare relatives is that the gap may not be the main subject of the relative clause."
    – user230
    Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 14:33

"There is an engine ... that keeps saying ...."

"An engine inside me keeps saying ...."

But still, "engine" seems odd. I would say "voice".

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