In the following sentence, do we use "stand" or "stands"? Are we referring to the phrase or to the group of words?

A phrase is a group of words that stand together as part of a sentence.

What is the difference between "that" as a subordinator and as a relative pronoun?

  • 4
    There are a few reasons why in relative clauses "that" is best analysed as a subordinator, not a relative pronoun. One reason is that it cannot inflect like relative pronouns, so it is ungrammatical in complex relative phrases. For example, "the students to whom the letter was sent" is grammatical but *"the students to that the letter was sent" is of course not.
    – BillJ
    Feb 11, 2017 at 19:56
  • A phrase is a group of words which stand together as part of a sentence. Jul 26, 2017 at 9:14
  • 1
    @WeatherVane What's the difference between which and that? Jul 26, 2017 at 22:52

4 Answers 4


The 'proximity' says that the relative pronoun talks about 'words'. Ask yourself, 'what stands together?' The answer is 'words'. So, ...

A [phrase is] a group of [words that stand] together as a part of a sentence

Note: I put the nouns and their related words together into brackets for better understanding.

  • 2
    Actually, "that" is referring to "a group (of words)". In any instance being a defined single group, I would use "stands". "A phrase ... stands together as part of a sentence." Though "stand" is often used due to the proximity rule ("words" being the closest as you said).
    – user3169
    Feb 12, 2017 at 0:39
  • @user3169 Maulik's reading is just as (if not more) likely, though. Read F.E.'s answer post here. Feb 12, 2017 at 4:18
  • @user3169 In "A phrase is a group of words that ___ stand together as part of a sentence", the antecedent of gap is "words" . Note that since "that" is a clause subordinator, not a relative pronoun, gap marks the position of the covert function of the covert relativised element; in this case functioning as the subject of the relative clause.
    – BillJ
    Feb 12, 2017 at 20:14
  • @Araucaria That link leads to your answer :P anyway that is a good answer too. Jul 24, 2017 at 14:23
  • @Man_From_India Oops. Maybe I meant this post of F.E.'s. Not sure ... Jul 24, 2017 at 14:31

This seems to be a philosophical question in a linguistic disguise.

When we group things together and try to define the result, the definion often describes both the individual components and the aggregate. The copula (is, are, etc.) forms a logical relation that sort of equates the parts and the whole, so if the parts have a common property, we tend to think that the group also has that property.

For example you can say that a molecule is a group of atoms that are held together by chemical forces. It is also a group of atoms that is held together by the same forces.

(This can be brought to absurd, as in "you are all individuals", but that's really saying that the "group" lacks a common property.)

In some occasions the choice of what to assign the property to is important: the world cup winner is the group of people that wins the tournament (as a team). But the 2017 alumni is the group of people that graduate in 2017 (individually).

In your example, the words stand together as a group, and the group stands together as well. So both are logically correct.


Whether we use stand or stands depends upon what the pronoun that is referring to in the independent clause. This is because that is the subject of the subordinate clause (because it is followed by a verb form) and must have subject agreement with the verb form stand.

The independent clause contains a subject (a phrase) which is defined by a complement (a group of words). Therefore, a phrase = a group of words. They logically describe or define each other. They are one and the same thing.

Since they are one and the same then it might seem logical to conclude that the subordinating pronoun that could refer back to either of them and that we can use either stand or stands to agree with the choice you make.

However, I think it's here that common sense comes into play. We have to choose the best fit for the whole sentence. In this case I would use a group of words since this phrase adequately fits with the word together in the subordinate clause. The word together describes how something is arranged and implies plurality (you can't put together one thing).

if we use a phrase (= agroup of words) then the sentence just doesn't make sense (what does a phrase stand together with apart from other phrases?).

My choice is therefore to opt for using stand in this sentence to agree with the subject a group of words= that

Your other question

What is the difference between "that" as a subordinator and as a relative pronoun?

****That** is a pronoun that functions as a subordinator (a type of connector)because it connects independent clause with subordinating clauses so that together they contribute to the overall meaning of the sentence.

Furthermore, that also functions as a relative pronoun because it introduces a relative or adjective clause. as part of this function. It also acts as a subordinator as defined above.

In your sentence I believe that is a pronoun which only acts as a subordinator because it introduces an adverbial clause and not an adjective clause. Look at the subordinate clause below in bold

A phrase is a group of words that stand together as part of a sentence

An adverbial answers the question **how? and where?**** How do the words stand? = together Where do the words stand? = as part of a sentence.

Sources: English Grammar by Betty Azar, Explaining English Grammar by George YUle , CERTESL Grammar 33 Manual University of Saskatchewan.

  • The ambiguity is whether that refers to a group of words or just words Jul 29, 2017 at 23:09

A phrase is a group of words that stand together as part of a sentence.

In this sentence it is most appropriate to use stands. The reason for this (I believe) can be revealed by considering the following examples:


The word stands alone.


The two words stand together.



The group (of words) stands together.


The groups (of words) stand together.

So, it would seem that the form of stand is dependent upon the plurality of the noun. That being said, the sentence should be corrected to use stands (with me interpreting stands as referring to group, of which I explain why just below).

And to address your other concerns..

  • Stand is referencing the group of words, because that is also referencing the group. This is because the act of stand(ing) together is a description of the group, not of the words themselves. Note that a group of words could (also) be scattered throughout a sentence, however, by stating that the group (of words) stands together, the implication is that the group is "bunched"; that the phrase (the group of words) can be isolated from the sentence by extracting a single substring (frame within the sentence).
  • That, used in this sentence, is acting as a relative pronoun, where the first half of the sentence (before the that) is an independent clause, and the second half (after the that) is a restrictive relative clause.
  • "Group" is a collective noun so "stand" is also possible even though it refers to the word "group." That is never a relative pronoun in modern grammar; it's merely a meaningless clause subordinator. This, however, is something I can't account for. And it's actually the main reason I offer a bounty to this question. Jul 31, 2017 at 12:17

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