There are many overused words in the English language. For instance, the word “amazing.” Is that glittery pencil actually amazing? It’s still a pencil. If the pencil could write me a story? Fine. That’s amazing. But amazing has pretty much lost its meaning for me.
I’ve gotten off track already (this is why I need Christine, clearly).
Anyway, another overused word is “that.”
And it’s such an easy little word to use too much, you might not even realize you’re doing it.
If you want to immediately enhance a piece of writing, read it over and see how many “that”s you actually need.
If your sentence can work without it, scrap that that.
Here’s an example:
The cat knew that he wanted to stir my coffee with his paw.
That cat knew he wanted to stir my coffee with his paw. works just fine. (Plus my cat is a jerk.)
Sometimes the sentence can’t work without that. For instance:
I hate that cat.
I hate cat.
You need the that there. See? (This works especially well in my house because I have two cats. And one of them is less of a jerk.)
One or two instances of using that where you don’t need it is probably not going to be noticed, but they can add up and make a piece of writing seem clumsy. And if you’re trying to watch your word count for a piece of writing, you can probably scrap a whack of thats. (Random thought: thats rhymes with cats. As you were.)
There are some fancy grammarly reasons you will need to use the word that, which probably have to do with participles or subjects, or clauses or conventions, but I’ll let Christine explain because I don’t actually pay much attention to rules. Just what sounds good. I’m so awesome. (Another overused word, btw.)
From my perspective, though, the basic rule is to delete it unless you absolutely need it.
Christine’s actual explanation of when you need that and when you don’t:
To that or not to that? That, my friends, is a bit of a complicated question. (Way to go, James.)
First, let’s talk about whether you need “that” or “which.” Yeah, I know that’s not really the point of Jaime’s blog post, but I feel it’s important and kind of goes to the heart of the that. (I have a sudden urge to write a Dr. Seuss type story and create a character called That…)
That versus Which
Ponder Jaime’s cats:
The cat that is sitting on the table is a jerk. (Sentence A)
The cat, which is sitting on the table, is a jerk. (Sentence B)
So which of these two sentences would be correct? Both actually. It all depends on your meaning.
Jaime has two cats, and by her own admission, one cat is a bigger jerk. Let’s consider Sentence A. In this scenario, Jaime is telling someone how her cat is a jerk, but she needs to specify which one. Let’s pretend Jerk Cat is on the table and Other Cat is on the couch. In this case, it’s vital information for the person to know that Jerk Cat is on the table. Therefore, you need “that.”
What about Sentence B, you ask! Well, here, you’re basically adding in extra information. You don’t need this information to know which cat Jaime is talking about. So, maybe Jaime all of a sudden only has one cat (for totally natural reasons, folks—don’t get all upset now), or maybe she only ever had one cat, or maybe the Other Cat went for an extended stay at Grandma’s because she was getting fed up of living with Jerk Cat. In any case, the important info here is “the cat” and not “the table” (it wouldn’t matter where the heck the cat was—you would still understand what she was talking about), so you offset this not only with commas but with “which.”
But that’s not exactly what Jaime was talking about, was it?
Back to That
She did a pretty good job of explaining when you take out/leave in the that, actually, so I don’t really need to get too detailed here. It’s a matter of flow and often, personal preference. Sometimes you may wish to emphasize a part of the sentence that you can only do if you leave in the that.
Sometimes the that adds meaning to a sentence. Here’s an example found on my favourite grammar website (yes, I have a favourite) Grammar Girl:
Aardvark maintains that Squiggly’s yard is too big.
If you just had Aardvark maintains Squiggly’s yard is too big, you might interpret “maintains” as in groundskeeping. You’d eventually catch on to the meaning of the sentence, but why make things more complicated than they need to be?
So, as Jaime said, if you can leave the that out, go for it. You’ll likely improve your rhythm and reducing word count is never a bad thing. But if you are worried about messing up the meaning of your sentence, just leave it in. #inclusion (I’m more concerned about mixing up the that with the which…that’s just downright messy in my opinion).
And… that is that! Any questions? Leave us a comment!