Recently, I read an article advising writers to eliminate the word “that” from their work. The word is unnecessary, the article said, and getting rid of it makes your sentences read faster and sound punchier.
True, this rule often works, as in the sentence “Stanley was certain that his college education was worthwhile.” The sentence is equally clear and grammatical as “Stanley was certain his college education was worthwhile.” But as with many rules, it’s unwise to make this one an absolute.
Consider “I recommend my students write an autobiographical essay.” From a quick reading of the first clause, one could jump to the conclusion that the teacher is recommending the students themselves. Ambiguity should be avoided. So the sentence is better as “I recommend that my students write an autobiographical essay.”
Here’s another example: “You may discover things about me you never knew.” The “me you” juxtaposition is awkward. The sentence should be recast as “You may discover things about me that you never knew.”
Garner’s Modern American Usage, an excellent style guide, notes, “The writers who ill-advisedly omit ‘that’ seem deaf to their ambiguities and miscues.” I agree. Rules of thumb are helpful, but beware of using them blindly or unquestioningly. Exceptions usually exist. Which may be why we have more fingers than thumbs.
[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]