that is a problem

That is a problem. The word that.

Not a huge problem, really. When we are writing, most of the time that is grammatically correct, although often unnecessary. With practice, it can often be eliminated and should be as long as the meaning is clear. “She said that she had a headache” is no clearer than, “she said she had a headache.” In most cases, shorter is better. And clearer.

often unnecessary

Some argue (that) it depends on the verb, but I think (that) the word is usually superfluous. The argument is based on whether the verb is a bridge verb or a non-bridge verb. Whatever. No thoughtful writer I know has ever paused when writing or editing to consider this distinction. As with many writing problems, you can depend on your ear—what sounds right? Reading the sentence out loud really helps. But of course, it would “sound” right if that is what you always heard. In that last sentence, and in this one, the word is necessary. (Without it: It would sound right if what you always heard. In last sentence, and in this one, the word is necessary.)

more often unclear

So the real issue is whether clarity is lost if you strike the word. Does the sentence become awkward or confusing? If not, let it go. Also let it go when you start to stack the word up, like firewood. This happens when we use the word to start a clause and then string several of them together, in the same sentence or in a series of sentences. I will always remember that my grandfather was a nice man that would tell stories about the mishaps that he got into when he was a kid that could have been avoided if he had remembered that his mom would find out. Stop that already.

My grandfather often told me about his adventures as a kid. Clearly better. Often “that” is not just an extra word. It signals you are using too many other words. This weakens the good ones. Your grandfather, in this case, doesn’t need to be buried in a clause. Hopefully, he doesn’t need to be buried at all.

More to the point, however, the sentence is not about you. It is about your grandfather. If your great-grandma needs a mention, give her a sentence of her own. Since she took care of your adventurous grandpa, she certainly deserves it. But that is another story.

Meanwhile, in my forty years of grading college essays, I often read papers with that four or five times per page, or more, sometimes with two or more in a single sentence. This signals lazy, sloppy thinking—no willingness to sharpen or clarify or prioritize ideas.

So don’t bury grandpa. And do check your writing for this annoying and troublesome word, since when you overuse it key ideas get bogged down or tacked on.

That is a problem.


Was this helpful? Let me know if you would like to see more writing tips like these.

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