Should you omit or retain ‘that’ in your writing?

Often the correct decision depends on the context and on the word or words that follow. Sometimes, though, your ear should guide you.

Some members of my critique group often return my submissions having circled every that I’ve used to introduce a noun clause.

Note: A noun clause is a subordinate clause that answers “what?” after a verb in another clause: “I feel that you are mistaken.” Main clause: “I feel.” Noun clause: “that you are mistaken.”

Most of the time, I agree with their judgment and remove the offending that. Sometimes, however, I choose to leave it in, even if it’s not strictly necessary.

The modern mantra of “leave out needless words” is one to observe in a general way, but it shouldn’t lead a writer to slash mindlessly at every word that can be left out just because it can be.

Plenty of guidelines are given for the inclusion or omission of that when introducing a noun clause. The recommendations of the AP Stylebook are often quoted:

  • Omit that after the verb to say—”usually.”
  • Do not omit that when a time element intervenes between the verb and the dependent clause.
  • Include that after the verbs advocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose, and state—”usually.”
  • Include that before clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although, etc.

Recognizing the impossibility of laying down hard and fast rules for the use of that as a conjunction, the AP entry concludes with this sensible remark:

When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.

Fowler mentions some additional verbs that usually require a that: agree, assume, calculate, conceive, hold, learn, maintain, and suggest.

Even if a verb appears on some guide’s “OK to omit” list, writers need to be alert to the possibility that omitting a that could force a reader to stumble, as in these examples:

“The accountant has learned fractions must not appear in the totals.”
“Do you know Mary Smith has left the firm?”
“The doctor feels your leg will soon be better.”

Here are some that and non-that examples from two popular and respected modern writers.

Elizabeth George, “In the Presence of the Enemy”:

within minutes it seemed that she hadn’t been able to hold up her head

our esteemed MP from East Norfolk declared that his constituency is solidly behind him

MP Larnsey’s wife swore yesterday she’d stick by her man, but I’ve a source who’s told me she’s moving out tonight.

I’ve had a call from someone inside the association who says Larnsey’s going to be asked to stand down.

Laurie King, “Justice Hall”:

One might wish he’d stuck with badgers and squirrels

At Marsh’s door she said politely that she’d see me at dinner

You have to admit that his observations […] are quite perceptive

I felt again that he’d have put it together as soon as he knew Iris better.

The Darlings might hear that we had failed to board the train…This means that most of the actual tailing exercise will fall to Russell and myself.

both knew that if they were to dine with Mme Hughenfort, they could not be following her through the streets.

Even when that is not needed for clarity, it may be the right stylistic choice for a writer’s intended tone. When it comes to using that as a conjunction, the best advice is to be aware of the “rules,” but don’t be afraid to deviate from them if the sentence doesn’t sound right to your writerly ear.

A version of this article first appeared on DailyWritingTips.

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