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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

Omitting 'That' After Nouns

If you're a native English speaker, go by your ear.

What about "that" after a noun? As with verbs, there are a few nouns that let you get away with omitting "that." Other nouns sound odd if you do it, and some nouns are downright confusing if you try deleting a "that" after them.

Some nouns that tolerate "that" omission pretty well include "possibility" and "feeling," as in "There’s a possibility we'll come to the party," and "I get the feeling we'll be there."

Nouns that sound awkward if you delete a "that" include "fact." A phrase like "the fact Squiggly likes chocolate" is clear enough, but it’s really awkward-sounding. When newspaper copy editors follow an overly zealous "that"-striking policy, we end up with clunky sentences like these examples from COCA:

  • Calvert Group removed contractors Titan Corp. and CACI International from its social index over allegations they were involved in abusing Iraqi prisoners.
  • The Packers haven’t drafted a quarterback despite rumors they were interested in doing so.

Again, these sentences aren’t wrong, but they would sound a lot better with "that" inserted after the nouns "allegations" and "rumors."

As with verbs, "that"-deletion after a noun isn’t always just awkward; sometimes it’s confusing. The reason is that "that" can perform two functions after a noun. First, it can introduce a relative clause (also known as an adjective clause), as in "the rumor that Fenster heard." Second, it can introduce a clause that just explains what the noun is; for example, "the rumor that Fenster started dyeing his hair."

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