Crafting Better Sentences: Use “That” Carefully
I’ve long said that it’s the small, everyday words that get writers into trouble. Today’s topic, that, is a prime example. In my first sentence I used that twice–it’s that common. (And there’s another that!) We should all be grateful to have such a useful word at our disposal–but we should also be aware of the potential land mines.
(Informal mails and conversation don’t require such close attention to these rules. And you probably should ignore these rules when you’re writing dialogue in a novel or short story: Formal use of that can make your characters sound stiff and unnatural.)
1. When you use that as a pointer, make sure there’s a person, place, or thing right after it.
In formal grammatical terminology, you need to avoid the error called an indefinite pronoun reference. In plain English, make sure that refers to the exact words you’ve written earlier in your piece.
For example, suppose you wrote this: “The entry fee has doubled, and that means I won’t be going this year.” A good editor would strike out that sentence because that refers to “the doubling of the entry fee,” and you didn’t use those exact words. Here’s what you should have written: “I won’t be going because the entry fee has doubled.”
It’s usually easy to fix these sentences: Just rewrite them without using that. And sometimes it’s even easier: Just put a noun after that.
Jody asked for three helpings of that. NEEDS REVISION
Jody asked for three helpings of that casserole. BETTER
2. Use that for things and who/whom for people.
All of us often say things like “The man that delivers our doughnuts was late this morning” and “Give this to everyone that requests a copy.” In formal writing you have to change these sentences to “The man who delivers our doughnuts was late this morning” and “Give this to everyone who requests a copy.”
An unpleasant truth about trying to write with perfect grammar crops up here: Sometimes you’ll get stuck having to deal with who and whom. Take a look at this sentence, for example: “I need to talk to the aide that we hired yesterday.” It should read this way: “I need to talk to the aide whom we hired yesterday.”
Luckily there’s often an easy (and legal!) way out: Just omit that/who/whom altogether: “I need to talk to the aide we hired yesterday.”
3. Be cautious when that is the first word in a sentence.
Please notice I did not order you not to start a sentence with that! I’m just telling you to be careful.
Because that is such a slippery word, it can be perfectly innocent in one sentence and then drag you into a complicated grammatical problem in another sentence. Compare these examples:
That resort sounds like the perfect place for our vacation. CORRECT
That I’m hoping to buy when I get my income tax refund. INCORRECT
The second example is a fragment that needs to be attached to another complete sentence:
I’ve been talking to Jenna about the Toyota Camry that I’m hoping to buy when I get my income tax refund. CORRECTED
4. In general, don’t let a comma touch the word that.
This rule of thumb works perhaps 99% of the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sweated over a complicated sentence–how do I punctuate this thing?–and finally been rescued by the “don’t let a comma touch the word that” rule. Rule 5 explains why this rule is so helpful.
5. When you’re describing a thing, use that if there’s no comma; use which if there’s a comma.
I learned this lovely rule from author Theodore Bernstein, who said “which hunting” was a favorite pastime of his. Here’s an example:
The restaurant which serves the best pizza in Auburndale is Pizza Town.
Since that sentence has no comma, it should be rewritten like this:
The restaurant that serves the best pizza in Auburndale is Pizza Town.
6. Using that is optional in some sentences.
Suppose you wrote this sentence: “Burton told me that he’s taking his vacation next week.” Can you omit that? Yes, with this reminder: In very formal writing, you should put that back in. And it gets complicated if you’re a journalist: Check the Associated Press Stylebook for detailed guidelines.
7. The jury is out on expressions like “that of” and “the fact that.”
I’ve noticed that writers seem to be using the phrase “that of” much more frequently than they used to. I’m one of many writers who dislike “that of” and refuse to use it. Nobody says “that of” in conversation–why use it writing? Here’s what I mean:
The bread from Boysinger’s Bakery is better than that of Russo’s. AWKWARD
I’m shaking my head. Here’s what I would have written:
The bread from Boysinger’s Bakery is better than Russo’s. BETTER
Sticklers say my sentence is wrong because I’m comparing bread to a bakery. I say nonsense! Not one person in a thousand would be confused by my version.
“The fact that” is less offensive, but it still seems to gum up sentences. I usually try to revise sentences to eliminate “the fact that.” An example:
The fact that service on JetBlue is so good makes it my favorite airline. AWKWARD
Here’s what I would have written:
JetBlue is my favorite airline because the service is so good. BETTER
One final comment:
There’s a hidden bonus when you develop the habit of thinking about the ways you use that: Because it’s is such a common word, you’ll be sharpening your overall awareness of good English usage.
Jean Reynolds, Ph.D., is a longtime English professor, a Shaw scholar, and the author of seven published books.
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