A piece of bossy advice often given to creative writers is to sweep through your manuscripts before you submit them and delete certain words. “Just,” “so,” “very,” and “really” vie for the top target, but the most popular prohibition of all might be of the word “that.”
What’s wrong with “that”?
Nothing is wrong with the word “that.” It’s frequently essential to the grammar or clarity of a sentence (see below). Yet we’re often told [that] it’s “unneeded.” I sense the ghosts of Strunk and White here. “Omit needless words,” they tell us, declaring (for instance) that the sentence “His story is strange” is “more vigorous” than “His story is a strange one” and therefore better.
But is vigorous always better? Do readers demand vigor at all times, from every sentence? Creative writers especially must ask, Is this character or narration meant to be vigorous?
It’s interesting that Strunk and White do not include “that” in their examples of needless words. In fact they use it repeatedly in their own advice on omitting needless words: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short . . . but that every word tell” (The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. [New York: Macmillan, 1979], p. 23). Clearly, Strunk and White believed that “that” has the power to tell.
Picture an aged, rasping storyteller surrounded by curious listeners. The storyteller begins. Pick one:
“It is strange, the tale that he told.”
“It’s strange, the tale he told.”
“His story is strange.”
No matter which version you like best, it’s a valid exercise. The writer chooses. What if the character is a beat cop instead of a mysterious storyteller? Most of us would rather base our choice on how the character or narrator speaks than on a dubious rule. We listen to the sentence and choose what fits: vigor, musicality, a dreamy formality.
The problem with labeling any word as “needless” is that sometimes it’s the best word possible. In the sentences above, I used it four times, quoted it twice (not counting the storyteller example or when I referred to it as a word), and chose to omit it once. Would you have made different choices? How to decide?
When “that” can go
I won’t deny that “that” sometimes gets in the way of a good sentence. Newspaper editors who like to save ink are expert deleters of “that.” As the AP Stylebook advises (in its entry on “that” as a conjunction), “That usually may be omitted when a dependent clause immediately follows a form of the verb to say: The president said he had signed the bill.” Creative writers aiming for briskness can take the hint:
Leave “that” out if it slows down the action,
He turned so quickly [that] he knocked the table over.
if a repetition bothers you,
That’s the real one? Everyone believed [that] that one was fake!
if it bogs down snappy dialogue,
“The key [that] I saw is in his pocket!”
or if you simply don’t like it.
She turned the cake so [that] the hole in the side was hidden.
On the other hand
There are times when a well-placed “that” prevents the reader from getting the wrong idea. The AP Stylebook is clear on this: “Use the conjunction that to introduce a dependent clause if the sentence sounds or looks awkward without it. There are no hard-and-fast rules.” And further: “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”
Fiction writers encounter the same dangers as journalists if they omit “that” when it’s needed for clarity. Leave “that” in when it begins a subordinate clause after a conjunction like “after,” “although,” or “in addition to”:
She said that in addition to the wallet, she had found two rings and a small pocketknife.
Retain it after verbs like “believe,” “declare,” and “see”:
They can see that specially planted trees in the fields across the river will provide a perfect cover for the lord’s longbowmen. [“That” prevents us from reading “They can see trees.”]
And keep it when a dependent clause starts with an element of time:
He swore that on the afternoon of the crime he was visiting his sick mother. [Otherwise we don’t know whether he swore on that day or visited his mother on that day.]
Like much advice for writers, the campaign to eradicate “that” from our sentences comes from pushing a reasonable caution too far. There are times when trimming is in order. But a better guideline might be simply to keep an eye on your use of “that.”
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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