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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.

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