Not every sentence you write has to be as short as possible, we don’t all have to try to pretend to be Ernest Hemingway—or any other author but ourselves. Still, I see the word that used not improperly but too often.
Believe it or not, this exceedingly common word can also be exceedingly complicated once you start looking at it, and this week our dive into that won’t pretend to be an exhaustive study of the subject. Like a lot of things I write about here when it gets to the craft of writing, or things like grammar and usage, I’m not trying to impose strict rules on you, but instead hope to sensitize you to common problems, including problem words, so you start to think about them.
Like many words in the English language, that isn’t only one thing—it serves more than one function. That can be a demonstrative pronoun, a demonstrative adjective (or adverb, but we’ll leave that off for now), a conjunction, or a relative pronoun.
A demonstrative pronoun points directly to something that comes immediately before it, though in creative writing it might instead point to something that comes directly after it.
“What was all that about?”
This depends on some previous information, following some demonstration of what the character speaking means by “that,” or is immediately followed by some explanation, even if what follows explains that another character doesn’t know (or won’t admit to knowing) what the first character is talking about, like: “What do you mean?”
But usually your readers know what “that” refers to—a character exhibiting ill temper, the appearance of some strange sound, the end of an argument, and so on. For me, this is the most common and most “acceptable” use of the word since it stands in for repetitive information. So if this character comes in at the end of an argument and one of the participants storms out, she could ask, “What were you guys arguing about?” and that’s fine—people say that—but we might know exactly, via the context of the previously shown argument, what she means by simply asking “What was that all about?” That, too, is a sentence I’ve said myself—countless times.
A demonstrative adjective points out a specific person or thing:
“Why did you Photoshop me out of that picture of us?”
The sentence above refers to a specific picture. This is also a perfectly acceptable usage—it’s the way real people talk—assuming the person spoken to knows what picture the speaker is referring to. As always, of course, context is king. We aren’t writing one sentence stories, so clearly there has to be some description of the picture, something relevant about someone being Photoshopped out, and so on. If more context is required, the sentence would have to be more detailed:
“Why did you Photoshop me out of the picture of us at your dad’s restaurant?”
And though the above could be replaced with that and still be grammatically correct, as a semi-that hater I purposely chose the to avoid another that, keeping more of my allotment of thats for later.
A conjunction connects sentences or clauses, or coordinate words that are part of the same clause. You remember these from Schoolhouse Rock!
It’s not that I want you to blindly delete it.
“Omission of the conjunction that is acceptable, not only in informal contexts… it is normally retained in formal writing but is sometimes omitted in informal contexts…” says The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage Third Edition), Edited by R.W. Burchfield.
My grievance with that in many of it’s use as a conjunction is it suggests unnecessary complication, and with it a sense of passivity to the writing. Here’s where I want to start cutting that. But as with all “problem words” it’s not as easy as simply blindly deleting it—never do anything blindly if you can help it. Instead, look objectively—as objectively as you can—at the sentence and consider rewriting in to be more directive:
I don’t want you to blindly delete it.
This is more active, as is anything that avoids the idea of telling someone you don’t want them to think you don’t want them to do something. That will always be more confusing than simply stating what you want or don’t want. That said, you may want a particular character to speak exactly like that on purpose… and that character will probably be someone everyone else at least finds irritating.
A relative pronoun connects a clause to a noun, and describes or modifies the noun in the process:
I’m not one of those editors that pick at every grammatical nit.
This is another opportunity to write around the relative pronoun to simplify the statement, assuming the text around it provides adequate context, like the fact that I’m an editor:
I don’t pick at every grammatical nit.
My gripe with the word that often comes from the correct but over abundant use of the word, which to me shows a degree of laziness in the writing. That laziness doesn’t tend to make itself known with one or two occurrences, but once the “that habit” forms it’s not just the occasionally too complex sentence but one after another after another that can add up to difficulties.
That should be about enough of that!