Pet Writing Peeves: That

Coming up with ideas for Pet Writing Peeves isn’t a problem. Finding topics that I know enough about to explain, however, is a bit more challenging. “Just because” is hardly sufficient, but that is too often the only explanation that I can offer.

Such is the case with my admittedly mild aversion to the word “that.” I took grammar as an elective my senior year in high school. Ms. Stiles — a retired Army sergeant and a truly great teacher — must have schooled us on the rules. My inability to use the appropriate terminology today suggests that maybe I wasn’t paying attention.

I’ve come to see “that” in my own writing as a word that is worth scrutinizing. How does the sentence read without it? Most of the time, “that” simply isn’t needed. “He knew that she would…” becomes “He knew she would…” without changing the meaning of the sentence one iota. The same is also often true for “that is,” as in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Sometimes “that” refers to something else. The word could be anything in “Does that come with croutons?” If “I’d like the salad” was the preceding sentence, we know “that” refers to the salad. If not, replace the ambiguous pronoun with something more specific or descriptive.

“That” with a verb can be replaced with the gerund — the technical term for a word ending with -ing that is being used for a noun or adjective (kinda sorta). “She watched the hawk that circled in the sky” becomes “she watched the hawk circling in the sky.” Using the gerund makes for a more active sentence.

Otherwise, “that” is a red flag for clunky language. Most of the time, the offending phrasing is grammatically correct. Getting rid of “that” usually leads to a stronger sentence that is less confusing and less wordy.

Take a look at the bolded sentence in the last paragraph. Nothing wrong at all, right? The grammar is fine. Deleting “that” renders the sentence meaningless, so leave it in and move on.

Except I don’t move on. I’ve learned to take a closer look. In our example, the article “a” before “stronger sentence” forces me to use “that is” in front of “less confusing and less wordy.” I’m sure there’s an explanation involving lingo neither of us understands. I’d change our example to read: Getting rid of “that” leads to stronger, less confusing and less wordy sentences.

My first stabs at a sentence are almost always clunky, confusing, and/or wordy. I’ve learned to just keep going. Get the thought on paper and worry about the words later.  “He covered the big gaping hole with clear plastic that kept the rain and snow out, but not the cold” becomes “Clear plastic covered the gaping hole, keeping out the rain and snow, but not the cold.”

But what about “he covered,” you ask? Since the pronoun “he” was used, whoever we’re referring to covered the hole. If not, I’d say, “The clear plastic Bill used to cover the gaping hole kept out the rain and snow, but not the cold.”

Unless there are tons of them, using “that” isn’t a major pet peeve. But they still take me out of the story — even if it’s only to figure out how to say the same thing without using the word.  Now I do a global search for “that” before calling a manuscript finished. I don’t get rid of every single “that,” but getting rid of most makes a big difference.