Many writers wonder when the word that should be used and when it should be omitted. Because the word that can function in so many ways, the answer isn’t simple. When in doubt, opt for clarity. Here are some of the ways the word that may be used:
- As an adverb. (Sam didn’t understand how she could be that disagreeable.)
- As a demonstrative pronoun. (That is our sailboat.)
- As a complementizer. (I heard that he was a philanderer.) A complementizer is a conjunction which marks a complement clause.
- As a relative pronoun. (The casserole that she brought was delicious.)
Sometimes in the latter two cases, the word that can be omitted. However, clarity always trumps reducing word count.
Use That With Thinking Verbs
When using “thinking” verbs (believe, consider, decide, imagine, know, realize, recognize, wonder, etc.), the word that is often retained for clarity. Consider the following sentence:
She believed her professor, who was older than her father, was trying to seduce her.
The sentence above is confusing as written, because at first glance, the reader assumes the professor is a good guy. When the reader gets to the end of the sentence, he realizes this isn’t the case. Use this version of the sentence for clarity:
She believed that her professor, who was older than her father, was trying to seduce her.
Use That to Retain Parallelism
It’s important to keep the use of that consistent within a sentence. Consider this sentence:
He insists the allegations are false and that he’s planning on calling his attorney.
In order to retain parallelism, it’s better to write the sentence above like this:
He insists that the allegations are false and that he’s planning on calling his attorney.
Clarity and brevity are both necessary qualities of fine writing; however, clarity is king. Never sacrifice clarity for brevity. Savvy writers won’t remove that if it makes a sentence flow better, either. Writers must use good judgement.
In each example, determine whether that is needed. (Answers follow.)
- Susan said (that) she was sleepy.
- The teacher announced (that) her new homework policy would be in place soon.
- The store manager announced December 1 (that) the store would be closing.
- She believed (that) her husband, who was always late getting home, was having an affair.
- She insists (that) there is a squirrel in her attic and that she’s calling an exterminator.
- It’s fine to omit that for brevity here.
- Keep that here. Without it, the reader might think (momentarily) that the new homework policy has already been put forth.
- Keep that here. Without it, the reader wouldn’t know whether the announcement was made on December 1 or if the store would be closing on December 1.
- Keep that here. Readers shouldn’t think for a second that she believed her husband.
- Keep that here to keep the sentence parallel.
Until next time,
Write something you love! — Joanne