Take that, pedants

Many writers and editors subscribe to the principle that when used as a conjunction, the word ‘that’ can always, without exception, be cut from a sentence with no resultant impact on the overall effect. And in most cases, this is true. Brevity is clarity. Remove redundant words. Less is more (yawn).

But occasionally, less really is less – especially when it creates more work for the reader, which is the last thing you want unless you want your reader to go elsewhere.

As a conjunction, the word ‘that’ often plays the essential role in a sentence of linking two separate clauses that act, in effect, as a set up and a payoff. Without a ‘that’, we’re in danger of being left with an apparently standalone opening statement that momentarily diverts the reader’s mind from the sentence’s intended meaning.

In short statements particularly there are risks in automatically striking out a ‘that’ and the greater the potential for initial misunderstanding on the part of the sentence-skimming reader. For example, mentally remove the ‘that’ from these sentences and read them aloud:

‘I hate [that] you leave your underpants on the floor.’ (Fine. I hate you too.)

‘I love [that] your wife gives you a hard time about that stupid beard.’ (Shame she doesn’t love me back.)

‘I told Dick [that] heads was what he should have called at the coin toss…’ (Okay, childish.)

Newspaper journalists appear particularly prone to automatically omitting the word ‘that’ without consideration of the effect on the reader, as in this example from the Sydney Morning Herald:

‘In World War 1 so many rugby players volunteered to serve most of the Sydney and Brisbane club rugby competitions had to shut down.’

The absence of ‘that’ after the word ‘serve’ means you can still work out what is being said, but only after saying ‘huh?’ and going back for a second look. We then realise the writer is trying to tell us that so many rugby players in World War 1 volunteered to serve [in the armed forces], not that they volunteered to serve Sydney and Brisbane club rugby. (In this example a mere comma after the word ‘serve’ would have had the same clarifying effect.)

I’m not suggesting that striking out the word ‘that’ is something to be always avoided, but rather that it’s worth taking a brief moment to sanity check the remaining words and especially the ones either side of the ‘that’. When ‘that’ forms the critical pivot on which two independent clauses depend, then it must stay in.

But if its removal has no effect on the meaning of the sentence, then it can go – as in:

‘I think [that] copywriters are annoying pedantic gits.’

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