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The Overuse, Underuse, And Misuse Of That

By Author: Terry Sanders
Total Articles: 37

Few words in our language cause as much trouble as "that." Not surprisingly, this is because "that" is a pronoun, adjective, adverb, and conjunction, and it also appears in a number of idiomatic phrases. And, should this not be enough, "that" is often substituted in casual conversation for "which."
Definitions, Definitions, and More Definitions
Defining "that" would consume this article. And the "that/which" explanation would cover another paper, and I indeed wrote on this very subject at length at another time. Hence, I want to focus on the subject of this paper, which is the overuse, underuse, and misuse of "that."
One Self-Proclaimed Guru's Answer to "That"
Some years ago, when I had the time to participate in other folks' writing-related blogs, I remember being set back in my chair when a message-board "leader" informed his acolytes of his decision to omit "that" from every line in which it appeared in his latest literary wizardry.
I always wondered what happened when one of this fellow's characters should "realize the cherry" or "understand the toilet," instead of "He realized that the cherry had a pit in it only after he broke his tooth on it," or "He would understand that the toilet in the gas station needed a key after it was too late."
Then There's Too Much Clarity
At times I'll read something such as, "That is the thing that we need to be told that will make that clearer." The easiest fix for this is, "That is the thing we need to be told to make it clearer." I generally try to eliminate multiple uses of "that" in a sentence, when this is not impractical, and I recommend this for my clients, as well.
Substitute "Which" for the Second "That"
Many grammar experts don't agree with this, but I always like Dr. Jacques Barzun's contention, which states that "which," when substituted for "that" when the latter occurs twice in a sentence (and it fits and makes grammatical sense) creates more fluent prose.
And in those instances when three "that's" occur, I'll generally place "which" between the first and last use of "that."
Misuse of "That"
"That" defines with specificity--and tautology if you write what I just wrote, ha ha--but I want to get my point across. It can't be substituted for "which" when the context is nonrestrictive any more than "which" can be substituted for "that" in restrictive text.
The Best Determinant for "That"
I obviously disagreed with the guy who decided "that" was a bad word and it should be banished forever. However, I do believe "that" is overused. Strict grammarians might say I needed a "that" before "that" in the previous two sentences. It's easy to find a place for "that," if for no other reason than its abundant uses.
The old rule of thumb is to read the sentence with and without "that" and decide what makes sense, applying the method I used with the cherry and the toilet. For me, both examples indicate a clear-cut need for "that." When it's not so absolute, my advice is to omit "that" and read the sentence aloud to determine if the decision was a sound one. Sometimes I place "that" back in the syntax, yet just as often I don't, letting sound and fluency always decide the fate of "that."

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