That is the question.
November 25, 2009 1:43 PM   Subscribe

What is a good heuristic for the usage of 'that'?

I am not referring to the distinction between 'that' and 'which', but its broader conjunctive and connective use.

I find myself overusing the word, and instead of deciding whether I should omit it or not in the editing process, it'd be great if I could learn to only use it when necessary.

Any ideas?
posted by ageispolis to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's often said that you should err on the side of omitting "that." (Oh wait, I just broke that rule without thinking.) I actually think this is overdone and it's better to err on the side of using "that." (Except I just omitted it without thinking.)

So, there seem to be a couple problems. (1) There doesn't seem to be a clear rule for when to omit it. (Of course, some people object to any reference to the existence of grammar "rules." For them, there's obviously no rule. I'm assuming you're interested in helpful rules to make your writing better rather than dogmatic statements that there are no rules.) (2) Once you start overthinking this question, it could actually do more harm than good by distracting from your writing.

As you know, omitting "that" is optional, not required. I'm not aware of any more specific rule, though maybe someone else could provide one. I mostly try to use my ear. I omit it if I want the writing to flow more breezily, but I use "that" if it's a formal context, or if it's at all useful for clarity, or if it just sounds more natural.

I particularly like to use "that" after "believe," since omitting it can have awkward results. "I believe Joe is lying." That may not be a formal error, but it is a bit strange that the sentence begins "I believe Joe!" -- the opposite of the actual meaning.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:59 PM on November 25, 2009

I had a professor in grad school who was very anti-that; she would strike out every instance of it in my papers. So I got in the habit of leaving it out.

I find that (heh) most of the time I don't miss it. If I do, I put it in.

So, my suggestion: every time you want to use it, take it out and look at the sentence without it. Does it look/feel right? Yes? Then leave it out. If you really feel the sentence would make more sense / flow better with a "that" in it, then and only then add it.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:00 PM on November 25, 2009

A former editor of mine always said "if you can remove it, do."

Personally, I find myself using "that" even where it's redundant, but only very occasionally. And I don't follow any particular guideline, beyond the fact that it sometimes makes the sentence more clear, or sound a bit less formal. (like in that last sentence, for example. It could have been omitted, but it sounds better when it's there, imo.)
posted by Ziggurat at 2:01 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it's an issue of personal style as much as anything. I tend to leave it in, but that's mostly because I think it sounds 'better' and because other languages I speak require its equivalent.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:42 PM on November 25, 2009

A prof once told me that that that that that that refers to is often overused.
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:38 PM on November 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

You're clearly concerned about usage and good writing. Therefore, your best resource is Fowler's Modern English Usage. Get the Second Edition. The Third Edition was "brought up to date" by an "eminent scholar" who systematically removed everything that made Fowler unique.

Before going to the article on "that," I suggest that you read virtuosic entry on "idola fori," which gives you an idea of what Fowler is about, and how much more he knows than you do.
posted by KRS at 3:41 PM on November 25, 2009

Actually, Oxford has just come out with a reprint of the superb first edition of Fowler, with preface and notes by David Crystal. If you want Fowler's quirky, loving, amateur's take on English, that's the one to get; Crystal will alert you to the ways in which the language, or stylists' take on it, has moved on since 1926.
posted by languagehat at 5:34 PM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

There are some people that hate "that". :-) Just don't use it whenever it can be omitted easily. It's clutter, and a editorial hangnail for readers that don't like it.
posted by xammerboy at 11:41 PM on November 25, 2009

Oh, and I guess the sentence above could have been better written as "Some people hate "that"". I think the crux is 90% of the time, when you use "that" the sentence could be better written to be more straightforward.
posted by xammerboy at 11:43 PM on November 25, 2009

Also, use "who" instead of "that" if you're referring to a person.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:07 AM on November 26, 2009

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