Today humanity is in the richest state that it has ever been in.

Do you consider that correct here? Can it be substituted with than?

I think that would be wrong, but logically it fits in here. I can't spot an entry in a dictionary which conveys the meaning which that conveys in my sentence.

  • This should probably be retagged, since "that" isn't being used as a pronoun here.
    – MJD
    Sep 27 at 16:35
  • Potentially helpful for you in the future -- the Google search define:that summarizes a bunch of info from dictionaries, and includes the relevant definition in under the fourth form (conjunction): "introducing a subordinate clause expressing a statement or hypothesis". I use that search operator all the time. Sep 27 at 20:28

2 Answers 2


No, you cannot switch 'that' to 'than' in this example. We use 'than' in comparisons with a comparative adjective, such as richer:

Today, humanity is in a richer state than it has ever been in.

Your example uses the superlative, 'richest', so there is no comparison required - the superlative is greater than all others.

We use 'that' to introduce a defining clause - one that adds further, essential information - although it can be omitted and the sentence is still grammatically correct.

  • Today, humanity is in the richest state that it has ever been in.
  • Today, humanity is in the richest state it has ever been in.
  • 1
    Isn't 'that' a conjunction here, not a determiner?
    – MJD
    Sep 26 at 18:33
  • 3
    That is absolutely not a determiner here. It is a subordinator (more specifically a complementiser), the historical term for which would indeed be a subordinating conjunction. It initiates a relative clause and could also be replaced by a relative pronoun (which), with optional prepositional fronting (“richest state it has ever been in” → “richest state in which it has ever been”). Sep 27 at 0:35
  • 1
    @Astralbee The criterion of a "clause standing on its own" is generally used to distinguish a "clause" from a "phrase". It's not referring to context. A clause only needs a subject and a verb that agrees with it. "It has ever been in" is absolutely a clause. The only reason it seems like it doesn't stand alone is because of the adverb "ever". But modifiers to either the subject or verb never preclude a sentence structure from being a clause.
    – PC Luddite
    Sep 27 at 3:36
  • 2
    @Astralbee further, it cannot be a determiner because a determiner by definition is either an adjective or pronoun. In the example, it neither modifies "state" nor "it", so it's not an adjective. It is also not acting as a subject or object in any phrase or clause, so it's not a pronoun. It is a conjunction joining an independent and dependent clause.
    – PC Luddite
    Sep 27 at 3:45

Today humanity is in the richest state that it has ever been in.

That could be rewritten to illuminate the role that plays:

Today humanity is in the richest state in which it has ever been.

that it has ever been in is a clause modifying the noun-phrase the richest state which is the object of preposition in.

that serves two roles there: it functions as the clause subordinator and serves as the proxy for state in the clause.

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