At The Age That

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A reader has a question about a “cute little sign” she bought:

Something just isn’t right. Here’s the wording: “I am at the age that makeup is no longer optional.”
I want to replace “the age” with “that age” and change “that makeup” to “when makeup.”

Any insights or suggestions?

The difference between “the age” and “that age” is a matter of style, but when is the better grammatical choice than that.

Both that and when can function as conjunctions, but when that is used as a conjunction, it usually introduces a noun clause:

He believes that he can do no wrong.
She believes that makeup is mandatory after a certain age.

When is the usual choice to introduce an adverbial clause after words like age, day, and time. It’s the equivalent of the phrase “at which” or, in the case of day, “upon which”:

A new study has revealed 37 to be the age when men are happiest.

I look forward to the day when all children have an equal opportunity to access food and water that contributes to their health and well-being.

Most people were at home and this was the time when the fewest trains were running.

When that follows the words age, day, and time, it’s being used as a relative pronoun and serves as a subject or object in the clause it introduces:

The right to retire with financial security at the age that has been promised throughout our working lives has been denied. (That stands for age and is the subject of “has been promised.”)

Avondale students remember ‘a day that changed our country forever’ (That stands for day and is the subject of “changed.”)

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. (That stands for time and is the subject of “is given”)

The better wording for the reader’s sign is “I am at the age when makeup is no longer optional.” But she has hung the sign in her bathroom—an informal context, surely. I just wouldn’t give one like it as a present to an English teacher.

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