Practical Advice for Writers: What’s that?

Ok, here’s the first of what is going to be a regular Sunday thing.

Today’s tip is all about the word: “that“.

Take a look at this rather silly sentence:
That that that, that one that we see here, can be removed is not in doubt.

This sentence is actually grammatically correct. It’s also hideous, of course. (If you can’t make any sense of it, think of it as being spoken by someone pointing to the word “that” in a written passage.)

Unfortunately the word ‘that’ is far too easy to over-use – partly because it can be so many things:
An adjective. He has that belief in his talent...
Or an adverb. Only six or seven, if that many…
Or a conjunction. He decided that she should know the whole story.
Or a relative pronoun. …a list of books that influenced me…
(I hope I am remembering my grammar terms correctly here – years since I taught this stuff!!)

It might pay to ask your word processor to do a search of your final MS and see if you have too many of the pesky little things. If they turn up like a bad case of acne spots in every sentence, then try to re-word some of them.

That as a Conjunction
Conjunctions are “joining” words like and or but or if or although – or, sometimes, that. Copy editors are often biased one way or another on using ‘that’ as a conjunction. My Australian copy editor tends to re-insert all the ones I have left out. I then alter at least half of them back again! Another Australian copy editor I know religiously tries to get rid of them all in her clients’ work.
Who is correct?
Grammatically, I believe he is right is just as correct as I believe that he is right.

So what’s a bewildered writer to do?
Well, remember this: I believe he is right is more colloquial, the other more formal. That might help you make a decision. Just be careful of dropping the ‘that’ if the result ends up lacking clarity. For example: They announced all teachers, regardless of gender, must wear trousers seems odd when you start reading it. Much better to insert the ‘that’ after ‘announced’ so the reader doesn’t do a doubletake as he tries to figure out how teachers get announced or misreads it as “renounced”.

‘That’ as a Relative Pronoun (relative pronouns are words like “which”, “what” and “who”)
Here’s one way to get rid of a ‘that’ relative pronoun. Use a partial form of the verb.

The bridge that crossed the Canning River was washed away in the storm.
can be changed to:
The bridge crossing the Canning River was washed away in a storm.

The railing that had been broken by the storm fell into the stream.
can be changed to:
The railing broken by the storm fell into the stream.

It’s up to you to decide what sounds best in context – sometimes it is the first way, sometimes the other.

And that’s that about thats.


Practical Advice for Writers: What’s that? — 8 Comments

  1. Thanks for starting this series of advice for writers. 🙂 I probably overuse “that,” but my big confusion is “that” versus “which” (relative pronoun). I glanced at a grammar book at a store yesterday, but the explanation was short and unclear (to me…). ;-/ I like your examples of rephrasing to remove the relative pronoun

    After reading your post just now, I found a page for learning English online (on a German site) with an explanation of that/which usage.

    (My mom was an English teacher, BTW.)

  2. Those grammar terms do change from time to time. (I’ve run into three incarnations of something called a “subjective completion”, aka “predicate nominative.” – can’t remember the third)
    Nevertheless, you are perfectly clear.

  3. Subjective completion? That’s a new one to me!

    Lucky for us, what they’re called really doesn’t matter as long as we know how to use em…*g*

    It’s odd, it’s it, though, how you can only really get away with being ungrammatical if you understand what the grammar should be in the first place. And as a reader – Miss
    Snark made this comment too a couple of weeks back – you can always tell the difference between a writer who knows what they are doing and one who doesn’t and is ungrammatical by accident.

    Kendall actually had a good idea by going to German site. I think I learned more about English grammar while learning French and German than I ever did on English class! Learning Malay was not fearly so hepful though. The language structure is just too different.

  4. Hi, pleased to meet you! I just found your blog via a comment on Miss Snark’s site.

    I’m interested to read about your long-distance agent/publisher challenges – I’m a Brit living in Australia at the moment. I’ve also lived in America, Canada and The Netherlands and chances are we’ll be moving on again fairly soon. I write YA and have just started querying UK agents on the grounds that my writing is probably more British than anything else. Fingers crossed please…


  5. What an excellent idea, Glenda! Grammar is a bugger. Get onto the whole apostrophe thing soon, will you? If I have to see one more it’s when it should be its … or people who insert them in words like wants … I ask you!!!!!! Want’s. I’m about to give up. I despair at the disintegration of the language, I really do.


  6. Good luck, Mckoala – and yes, I think you are right to choose the place where you think you have the best chance of being accepted.

    I actually chose UK because I couldn’t find any info on Australian agents back in pre-internet days. I mean – just where did one begin when not living there? I had no idea!

    Will do, Karen! And I’m glad you now have a blogger ID.

  7. A voice in the C21 wilderness of lousy grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling. Go Glenda!

    Karen, a friend of mine has written a book about the use and misuse of the apostrophe – but do you think he can sell it? Of course not. Most people just don’t care. (Oh, and I’m so glad you have a BIP – Blog-in-Progress. I’m looking forward to seeing some action on it!)

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