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When to Delete 'That'

Sometimes people get overzealous about deleting every "that" they can find in a sentence. Here's why you need it sometimes.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #601

omittingthat

Several listeners have asked when they should omit the subordinating conjunction "that" in their writing. For example, should you write “Squiggly said that it was Aardvark’s birthday,” or just “Squiggly said it was Aardvark’s birthday”? For this sentence, both ways are perfectly grammatical, but if you’re following a principle of omitting needless words, you’ll want to leave out the "that."

Watch out, though. Although "that" is optional in this example, you can’t assume it’s optional wherever you see it. Sometimes it’s mandatory. And even when it’s optional, it’s sometimes still a good idea to keep it.

Bridge Verbs and 'That'

Leaving "that" out sounds best with the most common verbs of speech or thought, such as "say," "think," "know," "claim," "hear," or "believe." It saves a word, and it’s how people talk, too. Linguists call these verbs “bridge verbs.”

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For example, you might say, “I hear Squiggly throws great New Year’s parties,” instead of “I hear that  Squiggly throw great New Year’s parties.”

Non-bridge verbs tend to be verbs that carry extra meaning beyond simply the idea of saying or thinking something, and they don’t sound as good when you omit the word "that." For example, "whisper" is a non-bridge verb and doesn’t mean just to say something; it means to say it in a particular way. It sounds odd to say, “He whispered he wanted another root beer” instead of “He whispered that he wanted another root beer.” Not crashingly bad, but just a little off.

Newspapers are often guilty of ignoring the difference between bridge verbs and non-bridge verbs and deleting a "that" after verbs where it would sound better to leave it in. Here are a couple of examples that I adapted from the newspaper section of the Corpus of Contemporary American (COCA for short):

  • The department confirmed there were some victims.
  • Officials acknowledge they are hampered by a lack of information.

To my ear, both of these sentences are a bit off, and would have sounded better with "that" after the verbs "confirm" and "acknowledge."

  • The department confirmed that there were some victims.
  • Officials acknowledge that they are hampered by a lack of information.

Sometimes, omitting a "that" after a non-bridge verb goes beyond being slightly awkward and can actually be confusing. Here’s an example from Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage:

  • Son acknowledges being a member of a minority ... may have helped him turn his eyes abroad early.

The trouble here is that "acknowledge" can be a transitive verb. So when a noun phrase comes after it, such as "being a member of a minority," the reader might just take it as a direct object: “Son acknowledges being a member of a minority.” But whoops! The sentence keeps going, and the reader has to go back and reparse it. Garner calls this a miscue; sentences that produce miscues like this are called garden-path sentences. (We talked about garden-path sentences in the episode on Christmas carols.)

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