You want to be understood, don’t you? Of course you do.

Here, you'll find tips on and discussion of marketing copy and communications, plus a lot of tutorials on grammar, punctuation, and usage. Heavy on the latter for the moment (before taking up copywriting, I was a full-time copy editor for years). If the language stuff seems esoteric or picky at times, know that the simple and important goal of it all is clear communication.

That: When You Need It, When You Don’t

 

I’m all for axing unneeded words. In fact, I love doing it! You don’t want to use that excessively, for sure, but more and more I see writers omitting that when it’s needed for clarity. I could try using a bunch of grammar terms to explain, but I suspect that some examples are all you need. Simple awareness of the pitfalls of dropping that will help you avoid them.

When to cut it out

You’ll tighten up your sentence if you drop that in cases like these:

Okay: I hope that you’ll refund my money.
Better: I hope you’ll refund my money.

Okay: The rug that you sold me stinks.
Better: The rug you sold me stinks.

One way to think about the example above is that the words “you sold me” complete the noun rug, merely add to it. So you can safely stick them all together without help from that.

When to leave it in

In contrast, the next set of examples shows how dropping that can create a miscue—a moment of “huh?” for your reader—or even a full-fledged ambiguity.

In particular, watch out when a clause (a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate) or any long group of words follows a verb. If you don’t introduce it with that, your reader might not grasp it as a whole right away.

Example 1

Bad: They told students to get in the group they would have to pass an initiation.

Good: They told students that to get in the group, they would have to pass an initiation.

In the “bad” sentence above, “to get in the group” might be read as something the students are being told to do, as a command: “They told the students to get in the group.” That signals that everything after it is what students were told. The comma I inserted to set off the clause’s introductory phrase also makes the sentence easier to grasp.

Example 2

Bad: Take into account the higher the price you pay for your decisions the more you value them.

Good: Take into account that the higher the price you pay for your decisions, the more you value them.

Similarly, this sentence does not mean to tell the reader to “take into account the higher price you pay,” period. The comma I inserted to cue the “this, then that” statement also helps.

Example 3

Bad: Looking through the window, they could see the walls and ceilings were covered with graffiti.

Good: Looking through the window, they could see that the walls and ceilings were covered with graffiti.

Again, It’s not see “the walls and ceilings of the building,” period.

Example 4

Bad: I looked all around, hoping to find it had escaped and was unharmed.

Good: I looked all around, hoping to find that it had escaped and was unharmed.

The “bad” version may be momentarily read as “find it,” the thing. That signals that the whole clause, “it had escaped and was unharmed,” is the object of find.

Example 5

Bad: When he swam to the surface, he found the logs blocked his way.

Good: When he swam to the surface, he found that the logs blocked his way.

See how the first sentence, grammatically speaking, could stop at “the logs”?

Example 6

Another problem with dropping that: what comes after the verb might initially be read as describing the subject. For that reason, you almost always need that after such verbs as acknowledge, ask, believe, claim, doubt, and said.

Bad: Laura acknowledges being a radical prescriptivist would be bad for business.

Good: Laura acknowledges that being a radical prescriptivist would be bad for business.

In the bad sentence, “being a radical prescriptivist” is initially read as describing the subject, Laura. Insert that, and it’s immediately clear that the subject is acknowledging something, not being something. Totally different. And let me assure you, by the way, that I am not a radical prescriptivist!

For more on how to use that, see my last post, “That vs. Which: There Is a Difference.”

That vs. Which: Yes, There Is a Difference

 

That or which? There is a difference, one worth observing. Well, not everyone agrees. Some say, who cares? After all, historically, that and which have often been used interchangeably. But I’m among those who recognize that each word has a distinct and useful function.

Grammar and usage expert Brian Garner (he’s as big as it gets in grammar) writes of these two groups, “Those in the first probably don’t write very well; those in the second just might.” That’s because writers who distinguish between that and which know and observe the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive information (which I’ll explain below). As a result, their writing has more clarity. I say you can’t argue with that.

The rule

That introduces restrictive information and does not take a comma. Which introduces nonrestrictive information and takes a comma.

Restrictive information is essential, defining information. The meaning of the sentence wouldn’t be the same without it. You would never put it in parentheses (or put a comma on either side, which is pretty much the same thing).

Nonrestrictive information is nonessential, supplemental information. If you got rid of it, the sentence would retain its basic meaning. It’s parenthetical, an aside, so you put a comma on either side to set it off. The commas say, here’s the beginning of the bit that doesn’t matter so much, and here’s the end of it.

The most common mistake is to use which when you need that, so pay special attention to which in your writing.

Example

The difference between these two sentences . . .

All the lamps that were sold before 2008 were recalled.
All the lamps, which were sold before 2008, were recalled.

. . . is the same as the difference between these two:

All the lamps that were sold before 2008 were recalled.
All the lamps were recalled.

In the first sentence, that signals that the clause with the date is restrictive, essential. Only the lamps sold before 2008 were recalled. Any sold after were not.

In the second sentence, which signals that the clause with the date is nonrestrictive, or supplemental. All the lamps we’re talking about were recalled, and by the way, all these dud lamps were sold before 2008.

Big difference.

Example

Polar bears that eat humans are best experienced at a distance.
Polar bears, which eat humans, are best experienced at a distance.

Sentence one is telling us that only the man-eating polar bears need to be kept at a distance, suggesting that the normal bears would turn up their nose at fresh human.

Sentence two is telling us that all polar bears eat humans and therefore all should be kept at a distance. It also illustrates the fact that supplemental “which” information can be compelling. Still, if you cut that information, the point is made: keep your distance.

And which sentence is true and correct? Number two! A man-eating polar bear is a normal polar bear.

Really big difference.

While your head is in restrictive/nonrestrictive mode, check out my very first post on this blog: “Restrictive Appositives: A Bad Case of Comma Confusion.” It’s as relevant as ever.