Writing Helpers

Developing Writing Skills: Eliminating THAT. Part 2

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You may be wondering, “Really? Another article on that?” Yes! It is quite surprising how much trouble a simple little word like that can cause, and that is notorious not only for creeping into your writing where it’s not needed, but also for being used incorrectly.

In the previous article, I presented some initial good rules of thumb to follow.

  1. The first is to remember to not use that when referring to a person – you’ll usually want to use who instead.
  2. The second had to do with when to use that and when to use which in relation to relative clauses. With a restrictive relative clause (that contains essential information about its preceding noun) use that. With a nonrestrictive relative clause (non-essential information) use which and precede it with a comma (the comma follows the noun).
  3. The third had to do with removing the word that from a sentence and then checking for clarity. If the meaning of the sentence is crystal clear without it, then leave that out. Consider leaving it in, however, if it follows a non-bridge verb that is more complex than a simple bridge verb.

A few more ideas of how to avoid T-word

There are plenty of other ways to ensure you’re only using that as often as you really need to. Take, for example, the case of using that after nouns. I’ve already covered the use of that as it relates to relative clauses. Those are sometimes also referred to as adjective clauses because they help modify the noun preceding them. As previously mentioned, feel free to remove that if (and only if) it doesn’t affect the clarity of the sentence. But even beyond clarity, there’s still the matter of how the sentence flows when read aloud. In this approach, your use of that is guided by your ear and judging how the sentence sounds. That’s important because you’ll recall that one of the ways you exercise the art of clarity in your writing is KIS principle #7 – Keep It Sound. You want your writing to sound natural when read aloud.

There are some nouns that sound fine when leaving out that. Examples of such nouns include feeling and possibility.

Here are two examples:

  • Do you ever get the feeling this is all wrong?
  • Is there even a remote possibility they might say yes?

If you read the sentences above and insert the word that after both feeling and possibility, you’ll see that the sentences still work, but both sound better and roll off the tongue easier without it.

What about examples where removing that becomes a bit more awkward-sound? Take a look at something like the word fact in the following sentence:

  • The fact I have a headache…

There’s nothing wrong with the phrase per se, except how awkward it sounds. It sounds much better when you put that after the noun fact.

Now take a look at a more complex sentence and see what you think of the noun allegations. Should it be followed by that or not?

  • Defenders of Wildlife removed the California Cattlemen’s Association and Cattro Corporation from its list of partners over allegations they were involved in abusing animals.

The sentence is complicated enough that adding the word that after allegations makes it clearer and sound better. Without it, readers are likely to have to go back over the sentence again to make sure they understand it, which is making them work harder than they should have to work when reading.

Garden path sentence

When the beginning of a sentence leads the reader to assume one meaning, but by the end of the sentence another meaning entirely comes through, it is called a garden path sentence. Sometimes the use of that can help avoid the confusion of garden path sentences.

Here’s a very short garden path sentence:

  • “Tom maintains Harry’s garden is too big.”

In the first three words of the sentence’s beginning, a reader might think that Tom maintains Harry’s garden, as in watering and weeding the plants. In fact, however, the sentence is explaining how Tom thinks Harry’s garden is too big. By inserting the word that after maintains, the meaning is clear from the beginning all the way through to the end. In this example, a garden path sentence is avoided merely by using one little word – that. Of course, the writer could also use the word thinks instead of the word maintains, and the meaning would also be clear.

This kind of case-by-case approach can also be applied to instances where that comes after an adjective. Some adjectives can handle that elimination better than others. This is similar to bridge and non-bridge verbs. If the adjective is very simple, such as sad or glad, you can easily get away with no that, such as “I’m sad you’re leaving” and “We’re so glad you came!” But the more complicated the adjective, the less common, and the more specific the meaning, you should consider keeping that in the mix. For example, “We’re flabbergasted you think that way” and “He’s hopping mad you missed the deadline” both sound better with that in the right place.

Make your writing flow well

If English is not your native language, it’s generally better to keep that in than risk creating one of those awkward-sounding sentences without it. If English is your native language, it’s more important to focus on how the sentence sounds than to strictly try to eliminate every that in your writing. Some writers go for sentences that have a certain rhythm to them, and keeping that in can help achieve that rhythm. Always read your writing out loud to hear how it sounds.

Interestingly enough, the AP Stylebook (the one used by many journalists) gives the general rule of thumb to leave that in when in doubt, saying, “Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.” But I disagree with that maxim because it ignores the art of brevity. That’s why I think it’s worth the extra effort to examine each sentence and make an informed determination.