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(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XV, published 1892)

Passage 243

“So we can keep the business to ourselves,” I mused.

“There's one other person that might blab,” said the captain. “Though I don't believe she has anything left to tell.”

“And who is she?” I asked.

“The old girl there,” he answered, pointing to the wreck. “I know there's nothing in her; but somehow I'm afraid of someone else—it's the last thing you'd expect, so it's just the first that'll happen—someone dropping into this God-forgotten island where nobody drops in, waltzing into that wreck that we've grown old with searching, stooping straight down, and picking right up the very thing that tells the story. What's that to me? you may ask, and why am I gone Soft Tommy on this Museum of Crooks? They've smashed up you and Mr. Pinkerton; they've turned my hair grey with conundrums; they've been up to larks, no doubt; and that's all I know of them - you say. . . .”

Is 'that' a conjunction or a relative pronoun there? I don't really understand the structure of this sentence.

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    I call it a relativiser. Which is always optional, and which can probably always be replaced by which or who depending on whether the referent is/can be antrhopomorphised. I don't know if the precise phrasing here was more common a century or two ago (we're obviously not dealing with particularly current English here), but the preposition use strikes me as unusual and/or affected. I'd expect ...[the] wreck which we've grown old searching for, not ...with searching. Nov 3, 2023 at 14:43
  • Thank you very much. That's exactly what I was puzzling about.
    – philphil
    Nov 3, 2023 at 15:37
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    @FumbleFingers Those have different meanings. Searching the wreck vs. searching for the wreck. Nov 3, 2023 at 17:12
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    @LukeSawczak: If you say so. I'm not gonna read the book to find out, but if that was the intended sense, I certainly wouldn't include the word with at all. Yet another reason why centuries-old text isn't much use to people wanting to learn current English. Nov 3, 2023 at 17:21
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    @FumbleFingers Well, we can agree about that last sentence. But with is irrelevant to the distinction; it's just a matter of whether you can make "searching" a process of "growing old" or not. (Compare: "He has grown weary with crying", also archaic, of course.) Nov 3, 2023 at 17:27

2 Answers 2

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It's a subordinating conjunction which creates what is traditionally called a relative clause. The purpose is to specify or qualify the wreck being discussed. Which wreck? The wreck that we've grown old with searching.

The only really outdated-sounding element is "with", which here means "by/through the act of": we have grown old by (the large amount of time we have spent) searching the wreck.

Note that to search X is not to search for X, but to search for something within X. As one reads in the passage, the speaker has searched the wreck for a thing "that tells the story", but he has found that the wreck has "nothing in it". An analogous (and common) use is to "search the premises" or "search the house".

Also, it's worth knowing that "that" is optional in this position in English, because it adds information relative to the structural object of the verb "searching". When it qualifies the subject, it's obligatory. (In English as recent as the quoted passage and newer, anyway.)

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  • -1 for a wrong out-of-touch answer. Relative "that" is a subordinator, (aka subordinating conjunction) not a pronoun.
    – BillJ
    Nov 3, 2023 at 18:15
  • @BillJ Interested to know where you see "pronoun" in my answer. Nov 3, 2023 at 18:48
  • The OP asked if "that" is a conjunction or a relative pronoun, to which you answered "relative", which can only mean 'relative pronoun'.
    – BillJ
    Nov 3, 2023 at 19:01
  • @BillJ On the contrary, it was a strategic omission. But I'll edit. Nov 3, 2023 at 20:37
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... waltzing into that wreck [that ___ we've grown old with searching, stooping straight down, and picking right up the very thing that tells the story.

Relative "that" is a subordinator (your conjunction), not a pronoun.

Briefly, when diagramming a that relative, a gap notation ('___') is inserted to represent the functional position of the covert relativised element.

In the above example, the gap is inserted in subject position, and this gap is linked to the antecedent "wreck".

There are several solid reasons why relative "that" is a subordinator, not a relative pronoun.

For example, it has no genitive form: we can say the woman whose turn it was, but not *the woman that’s turn it was.

And there is no upward percolation: we can say the knife with which he cut it, but not *the knife with that he cut it.

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