When To Keep “That”

By Maeve Maddox

Since the 9th 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% with no loss of meaning.”

I’d say that 95% 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 this sentence:

1. conjunction introducing a noun clause that is the direct object of “to make sure.”
2. conjunction introducing a fuller explanation of the noun potential.
3. relative pronoun standing for house and introducing the adjective clause “that was occupied”
4. 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 may 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 quotation. 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.”

But 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.”

Use that to introduce a clause that follows any of the following verbs:
advocate
assert
contend
declare
estimate
make clear
point out
propose
state

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9 Responses to “When To Keep “That””

  • Bill

    Then there’s always the case of using “that” five times in a row:
    It was that “that” that that that-loving editor refused to delete.

  • Dwain Wilder

    Isn’t ‘that’ unnecessary in this sentence?

    “I’d say that 95% 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. ”

    Ignoring ‘that’ here changes the sentence to a more colloquial, conversational tone. Tone is important in writing too, along with meaning and concision.

  • Brendan

    My style, too, tends to be heavy on the use of “that”. The desire to minimise the use of “that” has resulted in a noticeable amount unclear sentences in newspapers etc so I am glad to see that a stylebook agrees: “Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.” Exactly.

  • Maeve

    Dwain,
    I tried the sentence without the “that” but didn’t like the sound of it.

  • John Moriarty

    Maeve ~ after reading your post, the very next thing I read contained the following sentence (a reduced version of Bill’s point above.)

    “She has recused herself so often from deliberations because of her conflicts of interest that nothing at the SEC can actually get done — despite claiming during her confirmation hearings that that would not be the case.”

    Comments on the fairly common double “that”?

    Thanks,
    John

  • venqax

    I tend to side with the thaters. Or those that are the thaters. In speech, at least, I would say, “I want to be sure that that is true”, instead of, “I want to be sure that is true” because it seems clearer and more emphatic to me. Obviously I have no problem with word-doubling, either, which has been a subject here before– “Whatever you think what problem with ‘what your definition of is is’ is.”

    For the thatphobic there is also the option of replacing a that with another word,
    “It’s like looking for a black cat in a black room what isn’t there”
    — Andrew Squigman

    That’s that.

  • David Bolton

    As a way to lower the apparent iq or education level reached by the speaker changing that to what is great. But otherwise I feel it’s too big a change in tone.

    I too fall into the “thaters gonna that” crowd.

  • Linda Triegel

    I’ve found (as an instructor in a writing course and a copyeditor) that writers tend to overuse “that” because they’re unsure about how to use “which” or “who” (as an excellent editor once told me, “That refers to things; who to people. If this were not so, Who’s Who would be called That’s That.”
    As in the original 4-that example, I agree that two could be left out without losing anything, but don’t cut too much!
    BTW, Brendan – I think you meant “number” and not “amount” (look it up).

  • Precise Edit

    When “that” is used to create an object from a clause, I am likely to remove it.

    Clause- he needs to get out more
    Example- I am convinced that he needs to get out more.
    Elliptical sentence-I am sure he needs to get out more.

    What is interesting is (that) “that” is present grammatically whether or not it is written, thus affecting comma use and other sentence-level mechanics.

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