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. UNCLEAR

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.  CORRECT

But I need to add that some authorities consider Theodore Bernstein’s rule over-fussy and not important. So you’re allowed to ignore it if you wish (unless you run into an editor who agrees with Bernstein!).

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.

Theodore Bernstein

5 thoughts on “Crafting Better Sentences: Use “That” Carefully

  1. Gerry

    I have trouble with the word ‘that’. Could you please clarify point 1? Would an editor revise this sentence because ‘that’ becomes redundant?

    Also, I was brought up on this sentence: ‘The house bursts with people that we spill out on to the patio.”

    Could you please explain why this is incorrect? I can see I could use ‘and’, ‘so’ or ‘so that’, but why is ‘that’ incorrect?

    Thanks in advance,

    Gerry

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Gerry!
    I’m not sure which sentence you mean in your first question: “Would an editor revise this sentence that ‘that’ becomes redundant?”
    I’m wondering if you’re British. (The inverted commas are a clue – Americans use double quotation marks.)
    Sentence patterns vary from country to country. Your sentence about the house bursting with people sounds odd to my American ears, but it might be perfectly all right to other speakers.
    Here’s how I would have written it: Because the house is bursting with people, we spilled out onto the patio.

  3. Gerry

    Thanks for your reply… I’m Australian actually!

    The question I was referring to was from point 1 in the passage:

    ‘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.”’

    I was asking whether ‘that’ is dropped because it becomes redundant, as in you’re repeating yourself unnecessarily?

    And i guess what i was asking with my sentence – ‘The house bursts with people that we spill out on to the patio’ – was can the word ‘that’ be used in lieu of therefore.

    Thanks in advance!

    Gerry

  4. ballroomdancer Post author

    You’re talking about an indefinite pronoun reference, Gerry. You’re right – “that” doesn’t refer to something specific. The problem isn’t redundancy. If you delete “that,” you also have to delete “means” (or change it to “meaning”).
    In your other example, you can’t substitute “therefore” for “that” unless you make it two sentences: “The house bursts with people. Therefore we spill out onto the patio.” (You could also use a semicolon.)

  5. Pankaj

    Sir can you clear my one doubt I wanna know when can I use that twice and when can I write for ex- “these comments are not that much good that mine” can I use this or this is incorrect or if can use when can I use

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