“That” Is Not Always Necessary

By Mark Nichol

Try this: Go to a content Web site and click on an article, or open a Word document you’ve created, and search for the word that. This wallflower word is likely to appear with surprising frequency — but it shouldn’t seem very surprising, because that has five distinct grammatical functions:

1. As a pronoun used directly in the form of a replacement for a noun: “That’s my ball.” “Where are you going after that?”

2. As a pronoun used to introduce a relative clause: “The vase that I just bought is missing.” “I’ve gone every year that it’s been held.”

3. As a conjunction: “She said that she’d be here.” “Be grateful that you got any at all.”

4. As an adjective: “I’ve been to that restaurant.” “That friend of yours is no friend at all.”

5. As an adverb: “The joke was not that funny.” “I’ve never been that far.”

It also appears in expressive phrases — “at that,” “and all that” — and in certain affected statements that often call for exclamation points: “Oh, would that you were here!” “That I should be subject to such ridicule!”

It’s such a ubiquitous word, it might relieve you to know it’s often optional. As a matter of fact, I managed to avoid using it twice each in the initial paragraph and in this one (though I couldn’t easily get around using it once — other than in the sample sentences and phrases — in the previous paragraph; “often calling for” would be an awkward substitution).

How’d I do that? Notice, in usages no. two and no. three above, you can write each of the sample sentences without that (and notice I omitted the word as a conjunction both in the sentence previous to this one and in this parenthesis itself).

Just because that is often optional doesn’t mean you have to omit it, but sentences often flow more smoothly without it. Take these two examples:

“The water district informed its customers that summer that they would have to endure no mandatory water restrictions.”

Because the sentence has an adjectival (essential) that, you might as well delete the second, conjunctive one: “The water district informed its customers that summer they would have to endure no mandatory water restrictions.”

“I wouldn’t say that that’s the best way to go about it.”

When sentence construction calls for two consecutive uses (no. 3 and no. 2 respectively), delete the optional one: “I wouldn’t say that’s the best way to go about it.”

For uses 1, 4, and 5, that isn’t optional as the sentences are written, but you can often write around it:

“That’s my ball” could be written “You have my ball.”

“Where are you going after that?” could be written “Where are you going after you drop the mail off?”

“I’ve been to that restaurant” could be written “I’ve been to this restaurant.”

“That friend of yours is no friend at all” could be written “Your friend is no friend at all.”

“The joke was not that funny” could be written “The joke was not very funny.”

“I’ve never been that far” could be written “I’ve never been there.”

The point is not to eradicate that, but to notice when it’s overused and to know how to apply solutions.

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16 Responses to ““That” Is Not Always Necessary”

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the reminder. I’ll read and re-read my writing to see how many times I used the word ‘that.’ I’ll go back and rewrite my sentences and eliminate ‘that’ wherever I can.

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    I was wondering if, in the sentence “Where are you going after that?”, we could replace the “after that” for the “afterwards” adverb…?

    It sounded nice to me: “Where are you going afterwards?” – but as a non native english speaker, the doubt quite often remains.

    Anyway, nice cutting-‘that’-off post!

  • Janice

    And then there is inflection and accent…

    “He said that “that that that man did was not that that that man said that he’d do.”

    Thanks!

  • Nann Dunne

    Bless you! I’ve been an editor for years, and I bet I cut 50 or more “that”s out of every manuscript.

    Also, we need to work on cutting “then” when used in place of (or in conjunction with) “and.” For example: “She walked to the cupboard then took out a cup” or “She walked to the cupboard and then took out a cup.” Cut the “then”s and just say “and.”

  • John White

    Incidentally, I would like to see your post and opinion on this construction one of these days.

    >Just because “that” is often optional doesn’t mean you have to omit it…

    Although it’s very common in spoken English, I’ve stopped trusting it, since I observe that it appears to have no subject. It also seems a bit flawed logically. I’ve taken to rewriting it as something like

    “That” is often optional, but you don’t need to omit it…

    Pull this out sometime on a slow news day.

  • Mark Nichol

    Alexandre:

    Yes, “Where are you going afterward?” is a fine substitute for “Where are you going after that?”

    Notice, however, that I deleted the s from afterward. Although in conversation, speakers of American English and British English alike retain the s in words ending in -ward, formal American English omits the letter.

  • Mark Nichol

    Nann:

    Agreed. And then is seldom required in counterpoint to if: “If you leave me, (then) I’ll cry.”

  • Rich

    Question for the audience:

    “The Senate bill provides that all federal employees must wear hilarious T-shirts on Fridays.”

    -or-

    “The Senate bill provides all federal employees must wear hilarious T-shirts on Fridays.”

    Thoughts? I debate this problem in my head at least once a week.

  • Leticia Austria

    The option to eliminate “that” is an advantage of our language. However, in other languages, such as Italian, the equivalent (“che”) cannot in any circumstance be eliminated. So it happens necessarily that the word “che” is annoyingly frequent in Italian as it sometimes is (unnecessarily) in English. Unfortunately.

  • Mark Nichol

    Rich

    The sentence you offer — unlike this sentence, which suffers no ambiguity as a result of the omission of that — is one example of when not to omit it. When a word like provides that has more than one meaning could, in the absence of that, confuse the reader, I’d retain it.

    When one begins to read “The Senate bill provides . . .,” the more common meaning for provides — “supplies” — usually comes to mind, and the reader is likely to be derailed unless that appears to clarify the use of provides.

    This is akin to what some people call a “primrose path sentence,” one that seems to be headed in one direction but veers off on another tangent. For example, “The old man the ships” builds up an expectation about an elderly person, but read man as a verb, and the sentence has an entirely different structure.

  • Rich

    Thank you for the reply, Mark.

  • Precise Edit

    >>She said that she’d be here.

    “That” indicates (that) “she’d be here” is the object of “said.” This makes “that” a subordinating conjuction in this sentence, right?

    I’m just trying to clarify my terminology.

    To “that” or not to “that”: Here’s my rule of thumb. If I think (that) leaving out “that” may cause confusion, I leave it in. I’ll risk a little conciseness for clarity. Style is secondary to reader understanding.

  • Mark Nichol

    Precise:

    “To ‘that’ or not to ‘that’: Here’s my rule of thumb. If I think (that) leaving out ‘that’ may cause confusion, I leave it in. I’ll risk a little conciseness for clarity. Style is secondary to reader understanding.”

    Agreed, and yes, in the example you give, that is a subordinate conjunction.

  • projektleiterin

    I’m wondering about the fourth use:

    4. As an adjective: “I’ve been to that restaurant.” “That friend of yours is no friend at all.”

    You said that it’s an adjective. In German, you would call “that” in this case a “demonstrative pronoun” and English Wikipedia article calls it a demonstrative. Do demonstratives belong to the family of adjectives?

  • Ken

    Hi Mark. I read your “That Is Not Always Necessary” article, but I still have a question about “that”.

    In an instruction manual at work, I’m starting to see instructions like this: “Verify the antenna is installed on the back of your receiver.”

    I realize “that” can be optional, but in an example like this, it doesn’t seem that way to me. I understand the meaning of the sentence just the same, but it sounds awkward without “that”.

    In this case, wouldn’t its function as a pronoun introducing a relative clause (as you mention in your article) be necessary?

    Thanks,
    Ken

  • Mark Nichol

    Ken:

    I don’t think it’s incorrect, but it’s egregiously distracting, like a ladder with a missing rung. Sometimes, even worse, the absence of that leads to an initial misreading, as in “He believed what she was saying was true,” the first few words of which suggest that the sentence will be “He believed what she was saying.”

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