When to Leave Out "That"

Are extra "thats" in your writing bad?

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #110

Today we’re going to talk about when it’s OK to omit the word that in a sentence. The sentences “The turkey sandwich I ate yesterday had too much mayonnaise” and “The turkey sandwich that I ate yesterday had too much mayonnaise” mean the same thing. In that sentence, it’s perfectly fine to leave out the that. In a similar vein, the sentences “I said I would eat a sandwich” and “I said that I would eat a sandwich” are equal. So are you allowed to leave out the that in such cases? Well, it depends.

"That" Can Help Sentence Flow

When you’re deciding whether to keep or omit your that, you need to consider how your sentence flows. Many times, it’s just a matter of personal preference. Some people think adding that improves the flow of the sentence and makes it easier for the reader to understand. Others believe they should delete every seemingly unnecessary that because they want to maintain an economy of words (1). I’m all for cutting unnecessary words, but I often like to keep my that if it helps the rhythm of the sentence. You’ll have to judge whether using that in your particular sentence improves or hurts its flow. Sometimes it helps to read your paragraph aloud to see if you’ve got the right rhythm. The AP Stylebook, which is typically used by journalists, suggests you use a that when in doubt (2). It advises, “Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”



About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.