Leaving Out “That”

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Some members of my critique group often return my submissions having circled every that I’ve used to introduce a noun clause.

NOTE: A noun clause is a subordinate clause that answers “what?” after a verb in another clause: “I feel that you are mistaken.” Main clause: “I feel.” Noun clause: “that you are mistaken.”

Most of the time, I agree with their judgment and remove the offending that. Sometimes, however, I choose to leave it in, even if it’s not strictly necessary.

The modern mantra of “leave out needless words” is one to observe in a general way, but it shouldn’t lead a writer to slash mindlessly at every word that can be left out just because it can be.

Plenty of guidelines are given for the inclusion or omission of that when introducing a noun clause. The recommendations of the AP Style Guide are often quoted:

• Omit that after the verb to say–“usually.”
• Do not omit that when a time element intervenes between the the verb and the dependent clause.

• Include that after the verbs advocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose, and state–“usually.”

• Include that before clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although, etc.

Recognizing the impossibility of laying down hard and fast rules for the use of that as a conjunction, the AP entry concludes with this sensible remark:

When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.

Fowler mentions some additional verbs that usually require a that: agree, assume, calculate, conceive, hold, learn, maintain, and suggest.

Even if a verb appears on some guide’s “OK to omit” list, writers need to be alert to the possibility that omitting a that could force a reader to stumble, as in these examples:

“The accountant has learned fractions must not appear in the totals.”
“Do you know Mary Smith has left the firm?”
“The doctor feels your leg will soon be better.”

Here are some that and non-that examples from two popular and respected modern writers.

Elizabeth George, In the Presence of the Enemy:

within minutes it seemed that she hadn’t been able to hold up her head

our esteemed MP from East Norfolk declared that his constituency is solidly behind him

MP Larnsey’s wife swore yesterday she’d stick by her man, but I’ve a source who’s told me she’s moving out tonight.

I’ve had a call from someone inside the association who says Larnsey’s going to be asked to stand down.

Laurie King, Justice Hall:

One might wish he’d stuck with badgers and squirrels

At Marsh’s door she said politely that she’d see me at dinner

You have to admit that his observations […] are quite perceptive

I felt again that he’d have put it together as soon as he knew Iris better.

The Darlings might hear that we had failed to board the train…This means that most of the actual tailing exercise will fall to Russell and myself.

both knew that if they were to dine with Mme Hughenfort, they could not be following her through the streets.

Even when that is not needed for clarity, it may be the right stylistic choice for a writer’s intended tone. When it comes to using that as a conjunction, the best advice is to be aware of the “rules,” but don’t be afraid to deviate from them if the sentence doesn’t sound right to your writerly ear.

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16 thoughts on “Leaving Out “That””

  1. Guilty as charged! I always put in ‘that’ as I write and nearly always edit them out afterwards.

    I wish I could cure myself of that……

  2. Thank you, Maeve, for this post on a topic THAT I have thought a lot about. Great guidance! I suggest only one other point: THAT when I write a sentence THAT seems to call for two of these words, I am usually able to eliminate one of them.

  3. This post reminds me of a that-laden sentence recited to me years ago by a respected coworker, whose father had, if I remember correctly, coined it. As I recall, this sentence represented the greatest number of consecutive times the word that could be meaningfully employed in a single coherent phrase. To wit: My father said that that that that that man said was superflous.

  4. Maeve, I think that such people are edging into insanity. Resist them, as you have been doing! I do not consider that omitting subordinating conjunctions and subordinating pronouns is a matter of opinion.

    “Some members of my critique group often return my submissions having circled every ‘that’ I’ve used to introduce a noun clause.”

    I contend that “think”, “argue”, “claim”, “consider”, and “suggest” are verbs that should always be followed by “that” when they are followed by subordinate clauses. “Claim” is a salient example of this. I have seen sentences that stated things like “Adams claimed Alaska…”
    Well, that is a silly statement because Alaska already belongs to the United States, and so Alaska is not open to being claimed by anyone else.
    Likewise, “Sanchez claimed Santa Domingo…” is ridiculous because Santa Domingo is not open to be claimed by anyone since it is already the capital city of the Dominican Republic.

  5. But what is the rest of the sentence? We have no context here. If we say, “Adams claimed Alaska was colder than Siberia”, we would have a coherent statement. Likewise if we say, “Adams claimed Alaska for the Kingdom of Bongonia”, we have perfect grammatical sense, which has absolutely nothing to do with whether something is empirically true or even possible.

    Should it be put, “Adams claimed that Alaska was colder than Siberia”. Such could be understood to mean one Alask as opposed to some other Alaska. “That Alaska is cold, but the other one isn’t”. Context is everything, or most things, depending on…it.

  6. Almost all your examples, and commenters’ examples, of phrases requiring “that” actually sound better to me without “that”.

    E.g., I sincerely doubt anyone would stumble over the sentence “Do you know Mary Smith has left the firm?”

    When people read they take in more than one word at a time. Nobody reads “Do you know Mary Smith”, then pauses and thinks “Of course I know Mary Smith”, before reading further and thinking, “Oops, there’s more, so that’s not what they meant….”

    “That” doesn’t make the sentence easier to understand. It’s just filler.

    And that’s that.

  7. I publish research and often use the word, “data.” I use the word as a plural and write, “the data are presented..” Some my colleagues say is should be singular. I think the singular is datium. I see the word used in the literature frequently as singular. What is correct?

  8. I like the instruction to use “that” when needed for clarity to let the reader know the next word is not the object of the preceding verb but the subject of a verb to come. It’s especially needed in a long, complicated sentence.

    I also appreciate seeing the advice to consider the flavor or rhythm of the writing in deciding whether to use “that” or not.

  9. There is no such word as “datium” in English, sorry. Please try looking it up somewhere like http://www.dictionary.reference.com, and it isn’t there. There is the singular noun “datum” that is not used very much anymore.
    In North American English, “data” is a collective noun, and it is singular as are all collective nouns, by definition. Hence, “data are” sounds ridiculous, but some people in the British Isles use it anyway.

    I have read some British writing about “singular collective nouns”.
    All collective nouns are singular. There is not any such thing as a “plural collective noun”.

    By the way, in this context “North American” is not a euphemism for the United States, because North American English is spoken in the United States, Canada, Belize, etc.

    I will leave it up to you to find out if “data” is singular or plural in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, etc. I will just advise you that Australia and the United States are quite close in the areas of trade, defense, telecommunications, government, etc.
    Back in the 1930s when the Dominions and Commonwealths of the British Empire were allowed to establish their own embassies, the first Australian Embassy was in Washington, D.C., and likewise the first Canadian Embassy was in Washington. For years, the largest embassy in Washington has been the Canadian Embassy.

  10. Venqax said: But what is the rest of the sentence? We have no context here.

    Why don’t you just assume that the sentence goes, “Adams claimed Alaska …blah-blah-blah… was colder than Siberia”, and put as many phrases and clauses as you wish in there for “blah-blah-blah”?
    Think like an engineer or a scientist and look for the worst case.

    “Adams claimed Alaska for the Kingdom of Spain” makes perfect sense. Adams was wrongheaded, but why do you feel that you must drift in a similar direction? (Alaska was already owned by someone else.)
    In contrast, take this example in which “that” is necessary:
    “Adams claimed that Alaska, a wild and beautiful part of northwestern North America, was the coldest place that he had ever visited.”

    Otherwise, it could say quite confusingly, “Adams claimed Alaska, a wild and beautiful part of northwestern North America…”
    I wish that I could own Alaska simply by claiming it..

  11. @ Arthur Johnson
    Reviewing: “In North American English, “data” is a collective noun, and it is singular as are all collective nouns, by definition. Hence, “data are” sounds ridiculous, but some people in the British Isles use it anyway.”
    Whoa! Not so fast. There is no authority that *data* is a collective noun and less-than-no authority that in SAE the word should be treated as singular. If anything, the opposite is true. By the standards of the very dictionary reference cited above you have:

    1. a plural of datum.
    2. (used with a plural verb ) individual facts, statistics, or items of information: These data represent the results of our analyses. Data are entered by terminal for immediate processing by the computer.
    (used with a singular verb ) a body of facts; information: Additional data is available from the president of the firm.

    The RAREST opinion (if it exists authoritatively at all) is that data should be, preferably, singular (data IS). The farthest they go is that the singular treatment is acceptable in some contexts., like computing. The plural form is rarely if ever considered wrong, and is therefore best used when in doubt. Even in the 3rd example above, “Additional data are available from the president of the firm”, is at least perfectly fine, and again, some would say better. This thoroughly “North American” and the assertion that “data are” sounds ridiculous is itself ridiculous. It sounds unusually careful and precise, perhaps, as does saying “if I were” instead of “if I was” or the proper use of “whom”.

    The most that American Heritage says it is “safe to say” that the singular has become a standard usage. Hardly an endorsement of it.

    MW says (boldface mine)
    It occurs in two constructions: as a plural noun (like earnings), taking a plural verb and plural modifiers (as these, many, a few) …and serving as a referent for plural pronouns (as they, them); and as an abstract mass noun (like information), taking a singular verb and singular modifiers. Both constructions are standard. The plural construction is more common in print.
    Even going so far as to say that the singular form for abstract mass nouns is all right, or that both are standard is going too far in the opinions of many. There are good reasons to observe that data are and the term is plural, not singular, and the brutal truth is that with some possibly influential people that recognition is a shibboleth indicating erudition in this area. No one should tell that that the data ARE is wrongly put.

  12. “• Omit that after the verb to say–“usually.””

    This struck me as odd, both intuitively as well as the fact that it seems to contradict the golden rule:
    “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

    I did not find the quoted AP Style Guide. However, I did find the following in “Business Correspondence and Procedure for Students in Commercial and General Secondary Schools” (from 1922):

    “That must not be omitted after verbs that require it, such as “assure,” “discover,” “consider”, and the like. Do not omit that after the verb “to say” when long phrases come between it and the that clause.”


  13. Yakov Sternberg,
    I don’t see the contradiction. Your 1922 source recommends using the “that”—”when long phrases come between it and the ‘that’ clause.” Presumably, absent long phrases, they think it’s all right to leave it out.

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