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.