Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Word That—When can you leave it out?

Here’s something I've been thinking about—overuse of the word that. The American Heritage explanation is a little formal, but you’ll get the idea. That is often unnecessary and drags down the sentence. Read the sentence aloud and see if it’s needed for clarity. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. If it can be eliminated or the sentence rewritten to be stronger without it, do it. Work through a sentence to improve it. If it’s merely a device to get her to town, number 3 is tight and gets the job done, but you might come up with a more effective version. If the scene is important to the story, showing more—something like the last line—may be the best. Also, the writer's personal style makes a difference.
1.  She thought that she would go to town and look for a dress.
2.  She thought she’d go to town and look for a dress.
3.  She’d look for a dress in town.
4.  The frayed cuffs on her sleeves embarrassed her. Maybe she should spring for a new dress before the interview. The decision cheered her, and she started for town with a spring in her step.
You can omit that in a relative clause when the subject of the clause is different from the word or phrase the clause refers to. Thus, you can say either the book that I was reading or the book I was reading. You can also omit that when it introduces a subordinate clause: I think we should try again. You should not omit that, however, when the subordinate clause begins with an adverbial phrase or anything other than the subject: She said that under no circumstances would she allow us to skip the meeting. The book argues that eventually the housing supply will increase. This last sentence would be ambiguous if that were omitted, since the adverb eventually could then be construed as modifying either argues or will increase.

10 comments:

Patricia Deuson said...

That is so true! That I use that as much as I do comes as a surprise that surprises me.

Then I have to take 99% of them out, lowering the word count!

Polly said...

Most of the time I write "that" automatically in the sentence. That first time is non-thinking writing, when I'm trying to get the scene down. Since I edit as I write--the first edit anyway--it comes out of the scene quickly if I find it superfluous. When I'm finished with the manuscript, which is never :-), I run "that" through Find and make a more considered judgment whether the sentence holds without it. It's tricky. I've had an editor put it back in, so I'm not always right.

Ellis Vidler said...

Pat and Polly, I let it slip in way too often, but "was" is my worst sin. Searching and highlighting (thank you, Karen Syed) makes it stand out so you really notice it. I think I cut about 300 out of my last manuscript.
BTW, if you search and replace, be sure to check Match case, or you'll end up with a mess.

Patricia Deuson said...

Ellis,

This [not that] is an lesson you only need once!

Ellis Vidler said...

Yep. Stands out in the memory, doesn't it? :-)

The East Coaster said...

That, was, felt and seemed are words I seek and destroy during second and third drafts.

^Note, the above sentence almost had a 'that' in it...

Ellis Vidler said...

East Coaster, those are all good words to take a close look at. It's so easy for them to slip in unnoticed. You can't elimnate all of them--you don't even want to--just be sure they're necessary and there isn't a better way to say the same thing. Finding a balance between overwriting and boring isn't easy.

Star said...

I would leave it in most of the time. I think, when writing colloquially, you can leave it out more because it sounds ok to do so. It depends how literary you want to be.
I'm English so we tend to use more words. I'm all for clarity of meaning so if there's any doubt that leaving the word out would alter the meaning, I'd leave it in.

Ellis Vidler said...

Star, I usually trust my ear with "that," but I can dissect the sentence and check if I have to. I use "was" more in dialogue where something else often sounds too "writerly," but in narrative I try to get rid of more of them.

Barbara Monajem said...

I remove "that" as often as possible, but I too have had an editor put it back in more than once...