‘That’: Does it clutter or clarify?

Writers and editors often debate the necessity of this conjunction in text. Here are guidelines for when to include it and when to leave it out.

Since the ninth century, the word that has been one of the most frequently used words in the English language. It functions as pronoun, adjective, adverb and conjunction.

A browser search for “that” brings up 14,490,000,000 hits.

Small wonder so many copy editors do their best to stamp out that whenever possible.

One editor tells his authors to search their manuscript for all uses of the word that and then “Evaluate each and delete 95 percent with no loss of meaning.”

I’d say 95 percent is a bit high, but writers can reduce the number in a great many instances without loss of meaning. On the other hand, that should not be purged blindly in a misguided effort to save words.

The following statement by a police spokesman quoted in a newspaper account illustrates the natural use of that in spoken English:

We have to make sure that there is nobody inside any house; there’s always the potential that our suspects have fled into a house that was occupied, which is why it’s highly important to us to make sure that’s not the case.

Four thats occur in the sentence above:

1. As a conjunction introducing a noun clause that is the direct object of “to make sure.”

2. As a conjunction introducing a fuller explanation of the noun potential.

3. As a relative pronoun standing for house and introducing the adjective clause “that was occupied”

4. As a demonstrative pronoun, subject of is (“that is not the case”).

Two thats can be dropped without loss of meaning:

We have to make sure there is nobody inside any house; there’s always the potential our suspects have fled into a house that was occupied, which is why it’s highly important to us to make sure that’s not the case.

A third that can be eliminated with a slight rewording:

We have to make sure there is nobody inside any house; there’s always the potential our suspects have fled into an occupied house, which is why it’s highly important to us to make sure that’s not the case.

How does one decide whether to keep or omit that? Clarity is the main consideration. Will the reader understand the sentence without it? Some readers might stumble over a missing that.

A writer’s preferred style is another determining factor. My own style tends to be rather heavy on the use of that. For example, I would probably keep that after potential in the original excerpt. A writer may feel that a sentence flows more smoothly with that than without it.

That can usually be omitted after the verb say:

Dickens said that he wrote “A Christmas Carol” as a “pot-boiler.”

Dickens said he wrote “A Christmas Carol” as a “pot-boiler.”

Even with the verb say, if an adverbial element intervenes between the verb and the clause, that is needed:

Dickens said in an interview that he wrote “A Christmas Carol” as a “pot-boiler.”

Dickens said years later that he wrote “A Christmas Carol” as a “pot-boiler.”

When in doubt, keep the that. As it says in the AP Stylebook: “Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

The following verbs should be followed by that:

advocate

assert

contend

declare

estimate

make clear

point out

propose

state

A version of this article first appeared on DailyWritingTips.com.

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