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.”