To That or Not to That: That Is the Question

Increasingly in our editing, we’re noticing a reluctance on the part of our clients to use the word “that.” Now, we understand that there are times when the word can reasonably be omitted. Yes, we understand there are times when the word can reasonably be omitted. We also know that journalists in bygone eras—and perhaps still—were/are encouraged to delete words when possible in the interests of saving space. Well and good.

However, some writers seem to be reluctant to use the word altogether. What has happened? Why does “that” suddenly have a bad rap? One client even told us that a previous editor had told him to remove all instances of “that” from his manuscript. Madness!

Consider this sentence: “He walked into the barn and found the horse had no oats.” As the reader is reading merrily along, she might think, before completing the sentence, that the person walking into the barn is actually finding a horse—a reasonable thought. She then has to shift gears when she learns that what the person actually found was an absence of oats. This sudden mental adjustment could be omitted by inserting the word “that”: “He walked into the barn and found that the horse had no water.” In this construction, the reader knows mid-sentence that something will be found—and that the something is not the horse. Clarity restored.

Do not ever hesitate to use words clarify. Whoops— words that clarify.

Go Top