Trim the Nonessential “Thats”

We editors are always trying to keep your manuscript as slim and trim as possible. Another good way to trim the fat from your sentences is to make sure the word “that” is not being overused.

When to Leave in “That”

First, it is important to know when “that” is actually needed. This word frequently attaches dependent clauses to independent clauses, and it is necessary if a clause begins with certain subordinating conjunctions, such as beforewhile and in addition to. “That” also should be used before clauses that clarify a noun:

  • She said that although going to the nightclub sounded like a fun idea, hitting the hay early also sounded good.
  • The notion that I would finish my thesis by the professor’s deadline was laughable.

“That” additionally should appear after certain verbs, such as “declare,” “contend” and “point out.” If you are a native speaker, you can probably intuitively identify many of these verbs:

  • Carla pointed out that she had already finished the first two parts of the project.

You also should use “that” if a sentence would sound awkward without it. If you’re in doubt, include it, since this does less harm than incorrectly omitting it.

When to Take out “That”

If you are wondering whether you can delete “that” from a sentence, check how the sentence reads without it. If omitting “that” doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, leave it out. In the two following examples, not having “that” doesn’t change the meaning at all:

  • With: Jerry thought that an ice-cream break would help the students study more effectively.
  • Without: Jerry thought an ice-cream break would help the students study more effectively.
  • With: She insisted that she wasn’t responsible for the bathwater running over.
  • Without: She insisted she wasn’t responsible for the bathwater running over.

However, it’s usually better to keep “that’ if other words fall between the verb and the dependent clause:

  • The teacher said this morning that a television break would not enhance studying.
  • Hector admitted begrudgingly that he had lost the combination to the safe.

You also can usually omit “that” if it precedes a simple relative clause:

  • Neither of the girls was excited about the songs (that) the band played.

Using “That” Twice in a Row

When you’re trimming unnecessary uses of “that” from your writing, be sure to pay attention to sentences where it appears multiple times or even twice in a row. These sentences can be grammatically correct but stylistically undesirable:

  • Instead of: He confessed that that plan had been formulated on just two hours of sleep.
  • How about: He confessed that they had only slept two hours when they formulated that plan.

Even when not following a strict style guide, it is beneficial to revise sentences to avoid excess usage of “that.”

Should I Use “That” or “Which”?

Even though it is tempting to reduce “that” by replacing it with “which,” these words are not interchangeable. “That” introduces information that is integral to the meaning of a sentence, while “which” precedes information that is nonessential and offset by commas.

  • The first freshman class that all 20 students attended was amazingly free of incidents.
  • The first freshman class, which all 20 students attended, was amazingly free of incidents.

In this example, each sentence has a distinct meaning. The first describes a specific class where all 20 students were present for the first time. In the second, the attendance of all 20 kids is not an essential detail.

It can take a little practice, but one you get into the habit of not using the “nonessential that” so much, you’ll wonder how you ever lived with it.