When to Leave Out "That"

Are extra "thats" in your writing bad?

Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
June 6, 2008
Episode #110

Page 2 of 2

Sometimes "That" Is Necessary

Now, there are several cases when a that might be necessary. If your sentence already has another that or two, you might not want to complicate it more by adding yet another that (3). One of the sentences above falls into this category. I said, “Some people think adding that improves the flow of the sentence.” I could have also said, “Some people think that adding that improves the flow of the sentence,” but I thought two cases of that would be a bit much.

Another time you should consider using a that is when your sentence could be ambiguous or misunderstood. Steven Pinker, a linguist, warns about what he calls “garden path sentences” (4). These are sentences that seem to mean one thing but then turn out to mean something else. Sometimes, keeping a that can help you avoid such problematic sentences. Pinker explains, “These are called garden path sentences, because their first words lead the listener ‘up the garden path’ to an incorrect analysis.”

Here's an example of a sentence that leads the reader down the wrong path when you omit the word that:

Aardvark maintains Squiggly's yard is too big.

Without a that, the reader is initially led to believe that Aardvark maintains, as in mows, Squiggly's yard. If you add in a that, it's clear from the beginning that Aardvark just has an opinion.

Aardvark maintains that Squiggly's yard is too big (5).

Pinker goes on to say that garden path sentences are “one of the hallmarks of bad writing” because readers have to wend their way back to the beginning of the sentence to figure out its meaning.

It is sometimes tricky to know if your sentence is ambiguous because you, the writer, know what you mean. I always find it useful to put aside my work for a while and then read it again with fresh eyes. You could also consider having a friend or colleague read over your work.

Keep Parallel Construction

Two more points about that (6). First, be careful to maintain parallel construction. For example, this sentence is incorrect: “Natalie realized she had left her keys in the car and that she didn’t feed her fish.” In this sentence, Natalie is realizing two things, but the sentence uses only one that. This sentence would be better if you used that twice: “Natalie realized that she had left her keys in the car and that she didn’t feed her fish.”

Avoid the Double "That"

You also need to ensure you don’t accidentally put in a double that. This sentence is not right: “Natalie knows that if she doesn’t remember to feed her fish that the poor little guy will die.” It needs just one that, the first one: “Natalie knows that if she doesn’t remember to feed her fish, the poor little guy will die.” A comma after “fish” will help readers understand the sentence.

So, it's up to you to decide when you need a that to improve the flow of your sentence. Remember that some people prefer writing that omits unnecessary thats, but it's also more dangerous to leave them out because doing so can lead to misunderstandings.

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier

Finally, thanks again to Bonnie Trenga, author of this week's episode, and also the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier  and who blogs at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.

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1. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, pp. 212-13.

2. Goldstein, N., ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996, p. 202.

3. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, pp. 783-84.

4. Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2000, pp. 211-12.

5. Fogarty, M. Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Henry Holt & Company: New York, 2008, p.170-71.

5. Lutz, G. and Stevenson, D. Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2005, pp. 194-96.