Practical Advice for Writers: What’s that?

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.

Originally posted in Glenda’s blog on Sunday, 28 May 2006 (8 Comments).

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