The Language Perfectionist: Is This Word Always Unnecessary?

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.]
  • John F. Tashjian

    Mr. Hauptmann:

    My thanks for your article “Is This World Always Necessary?” regarding the word “that”. While reading it, something occurred to me: the word “that” as a relative pronoun.

    I’d always been told that when referring to inanimate objects, such as computers, tables, scissors, etc., I should use “that” as a relative pronoun; when speaking about plants and animals, I should use “which” as a relative pronoun; BUT, when speaking about human beings, I MUST use the relative pronouns “who”, “whom” and “whose”. When one stops to think about it, for a human being to be called a “that” would be rather de-humanizing, right?

    In any event, I thank you for this particular aticle.

    John F. Tashjian

  • Jose

    After carefully reading your article, I must say (that) I agree with people not following this rule unquestioningly. But I feel neither of the examples you stated truly shows (I purposely omitted THAT again) the word THAT to be necessary in some instances. No better examples come to mind at the moment, but I would welcome better illustrations of your point.