Writing Helpers

Developing Writing Skills: Eliminating THAT. Part 1

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If you’ve been following my articles on this blog, then you know I’ve written about two important principles of good writing – the art of brevity and the art of clarity. I’ve also said the two go hand-in-hand, but sometimes the relationship between them can be antagonistic. Your overall approach in writing should be to find the right mix of these two foundational principles.

In other words, you must doggedly pursue brevity, but only so far as it doesn’t reduce the clarity of your writing and vice versa. You might be surprised to find out how one little word can help show the relationship between the art of brevity and the art of clarity. The word in question is that.

I never paid much attention to that before in my own writing. It was when people started hiring me to edit their books that I became aware of its potential overuse. On two different occasions, I was hired to edit a person’s book, and both people said they would send me their manuscripts after doing one more round of their own edits. And they both said something like, “You know, to get rid of all the thats and so forth.”

I found it interesting how eliminating that seemed to be a foregone conclusion – something to be done without question. When I started editing these books, I found myself wanting to insert that in a lot of places, most likely in the places where they had eliminated the word. Two thoughts then occurred to me:

  1. First, both authors went too far in their elimination of the word that.
  2. Second, I might be one of those writers who overuses the word that.

How to avoid that

To show you what I mean, here’s how the preceding paragraph would have turned out if my that radar was turned off:

I found it interesting that eliminating that seemed to be a forgone conclusion – something that had to be done without question. When I started editing these books, I found that I wanted to insert that in a lot of places, most likely in the places where they had eliminated the word. Two thoughts then occurred to me. The first thought was that both authors went too far in their elimination of the word that. The second thought was that I might be one of those writers who overuses the word that.

See what I mean? It’s the same paragraph as the one above it, but now it has five additional that’s in it. They are all grammatically correct, but they aren’t necessary. The art of brevity says they should be eliminated. By doing so, the word count of the paragraph is reduced from 91 to 80 with revisions. I actually enjoy the challenge of trying to re-word something so the word that is not needed.

One quick rule to immediately reduce the number of this in your writing is to make sure you use who when referring to people. Instead of the man that shouted, it should be the man who shouted. Instead of the girl that skinned her knee, it should be the girl who skinned her knee.

Something else I see all the time when I’m editing people’s books and articles is confusion between when to use that and when to use which. In order to get this right, you have to understand the difference between restrictive relative clauses and nonrestrictive relative clauses. A restrictive relative clause gives essential information about the noun preceding it. If removed, the sentence becomes less clear or even nonsensical. For example…

  • He held out the finger that was hurt.
  • He held out the finger.

You can see how the relative clause that was hurt contains essential information about the finger in question (it is his and it is hurt). Without it, you can’t be sure what or whose finger is – the finger of a glove? A severed finger on the ground? Well, you get the picture. This is a necessary use of that, although restrictive clauses can also be introduced with whose, who, or whom.

Note, however, that in British English, this kind of restrictive clause may substitute which for that. In American English, this is usually not the case. It’s not strictly incorrect, but you’d definitely want to avoid which with a restrictive relative clause in more formal or academic writing.

When you do want to use which is a nonrestrictive relative clause. It carries extra information, but it’s not essential information, and if it were removed the sentence would still be clear. You should never introduce an unrestricted relative clause with that. Instead, you would always use which (or whose, who, or whom). Here’s how it works:

  • He held out his finger, which his mother examined.

If you eliminate the nonrestrictive relative clause, the sentence still stands on its own: He held out his finger. Note how a nonrestrictive relative clause is always set off with a comma before it because that’s an indication the information is extra and not essential. Restrictive relative clauses are never set apart with commas because the information is essential.

If you’re using MS Word and you have the automatic spelling and grammar check turned on, you’ll notice that often flags occurrences of which not preceded by a comma (but not always). Without the comma, the following sentence will have the green underlining: He held out his finger which his mother examined. Interestingly enough, if you replace which with that, it won’t get flagged, even though it’s grammatically incorrect: He held out his finger that his mother examined.

Word is smart, but it’s not smart enough to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses, so it’s up to you to get this right!

To wrap up the that/which controversy, introducing a restrictive relative clause with that is preferred, even though which is acceptable in British English or informal American English. However, this interchangeability of that and which does not apply to nonrestrictive clauses. It is incorrect to use that to introduce a nonrestrictive relative clause.

A few more recommendations on how to write better

Now we’re ready to tackle other instances in which the subordinating conjunction that can be eliminated. I think a good principle to adopt is checking your writing for occurrences of that and seeing what happens if you remove it. For example Jeff said that it was time for dinner. If you remove that, you’re left with this: Jeff said it was time for dinner. Both are fine, but keeping in mind the art of brevity, I would opt to remove that from the sentence. This works well with common verbs of speech or thought such as say, know, think, etc.

What you do not want to do is just do a global search and delete on that in a piece you’ve written. The results can be awkward because sometimes that does help a sentence flow. In the above simple example, the verb “to say” acts as a bridge verb (well, that’s what a linguist would call it). A non-bridge verb often sounds (and reads) better when followed up with that. Take a look at the following two sentences:

  • The man whispered he wanted to buy another ticket.
  • The man whispered that he wanted to buy another ticket.

I don’t know about you, but the first one feels a little odd compared to the second. The reason is because whisper isn’t a bridge verb. It’s a non-bridge verb that means more than just saying something – it means saying something in a particular way. That helps the sentence flow better. When a sentence gets longer, using that with non-bridge verbs can help the reader follow what the sentence is saying. Sometimes it comes down to your personal preference – does it sound better with or without that?

Check out Developing Writing Skills: Eliminating THAT. Part 2, where I explore more ways to make sure you’re not overusing this subordinating conjunction.