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He looked at Mrs Tonks, wanting to apologise for the state of fear in which he left her and for which he felt so terribly responsible, but no words occurred to him that did not seem hollow and insincere.

"I'll tell Tonks - Dora - to send word, when she ... thanks for patching us up, that's for everything. I -"

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I don't quite understand the structure of the sentence, especially the that-clause. Is that-clause modifying something? What's the sentence saying exactly? Can we replace 'that' with 'which' in this case?

  • Yes, you can replace that with which: the relative clause qualifies "words". – Colin Fine Sep 7 '19 at 18:55
  • You can only replace that with which in UK English. In US English, it would be considered wrong to do so. However, even if you did, it would play exactly the same role already being played by that. – Jason Bassford Sep 7 '19 at 20:01
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no words occurred to him that did not seem hollow and insincere

The "that" part of the clause is indeed modifying the previous portion, imposing a limitation on it. Consider what the sentence would mean without it:

no words occurred to him

This would simply mean that Harry couldn't think of anything at all to say. But that is not what the author wishes to convey. Harry could indeed think of things to say, it's just that anything he thought of was problematic – the problem being that they seemed hollow and insincere.

If you wanted to rewrite the sentence without the "that" structure, you could change it from a negative statement to a positive statement. Instead of saying that nothing occurred to him and then mentioning exceptions to that, you could simply say:

The only words that occurred to him seemed hollow and insincere.

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