“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” That quote introduced a fund-raising e-mail I received from the Mitt Romney campaign. As most people following the campaigns for President of the United States know by now, the quote is taken out of context. The current president, Barack Obama, did say those words. (Well, almost. He had a false start that is not relevant for this discussion.) But if you heard or read the previous sentences, it would be  clear that the word “that” is not a reference to “business,” but to the “American system…roads and bridges.”

In fact, it’s clear even from the out-of-context quote that something is missing. Taken as a standalone sentence, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” sounds not quite right. What does “that” refer to? The speaker’s political opponents seem to be saying that it refers to “a business.” One way to examine this claim would be to consider other ways that idea could have been expressed.

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build it.”
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that business.”

Both of these phrasings sound more natural. The use of it in the first sentence is the typical way to make a point like this. Consider another sentences  with similar structure:

If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.

Changing it to that in the turtle sentence makes it sound a little awkward. The antecedent of it, then, is the most recent singular neuter noun in these and similar sentences. The word that is used differently. You know from the contrast between this and that that distance is part of the meaning. That is farther away, literally or metaphorically, than this.

This flu can sometimes lead to pneumonia. If you have a mild case of the flu, you won’t suffer that.

Obviously, that in this case doesn’t refer to the flu, which occupies the same place in the sentence as a business in the Obama quote. He wasn’t referring to anything in that sentence. A careful reader can tell that the quote is missing important context: we don’t know what the that is in the previous sentence unless that sentence is included.