That’s Just Not Right

Of all the words in the English language currently in use (over 175,000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary), “that” is one of the most abused. It’s a word we barely notice—a placeholder for better words, an unnecessary pause. When speaking, this isn’t very noticeable. In fact, “that” is a useful tool for clarification in verbal communication:

John: I can’t believe you said that.
Kate: I don’t think that you understand.

With the right voice inflection, “that” helps convey emotion and cuts corners by summing up implied information. Writers, on the other hand, often abuse “that,” making their work weaker and more ineffective. When editing, I always edit out “that” whenever I can, and you should, too.

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All writers should be familiar with grammar mechanics. If language is a tool, you need to know how the tool works to use it to its full potential. “That” is an interesting word because it functions as five different parts of speech.

1. As a Complementizer or Subordinating Conjunction

In this case, “that” can be used to introduce a nominal clause, which substitutes for a noun or noun phrase.

Sarah demanded that her guests wipe their feet before entering her apartment.

This is closely related to its use as a subordinating conjunction, which makes one clause dependent on another clause. In this case, think of “that” as a connector.

I told her that she needed to brush her hair.

In both cases, “that” connects two independent clauses (both phrases on either side of “that” can stand alone as full sentences).

2. To Introduce a Restrictive Relative Clause (a clause identifying the referent of the noun it modifies; isn’t set off by commas)

In this case, “that” usually acts as a relative pronoun, which, coincidentally, introduces a relative clause (just like a restrictive relative clause, but isn’t restricted to the referent) or restrictive relative clause. For example, read the following sentence:

A woman who serves food in a restaurant is a waitress.

In this sentence, who is the relative pronoun and who serves food in a restaurant is the restrictive relative clause.

The word “that” works just like the word “who” when used as a relative pronoun:

The dress that she bought for the gala was too big.

In this sentence, that she bought for the gala is the restrictive relative clause. If you take it out, the sentence still makes sense: The dress was too big.

3. As a Demonstrative Pronoun

Demonstrative pronouns take the place of nouns (people, places, things, or concepts) as the subject of a sentence, but, unlike regular pronouns, they are more specific. They include the following words: this, these, that, and those.

That is funny.

That was mean, Mary.

That was too long.

To test if “that” is being used as a demonstrative pronoun, try replacing the phrase “that is” with “those are.” “Those” is the plural form of “that” as a demonstrative pronoun.

That is delicious. Those are delicious.

4. As a Demonstrative Adjective

Demonstrative adjectives are different from demonstrative pronouns because they indicate specific people, places, or things. They still include this, these, that, and those, but they are used in a different way. Let’s take a look at those sentences again:

That joke is funny.

That letter was mean, Mary.

That flight was too long.

Demonstrative adjectives have to have an accompanying noun to modify. They can’t stand alone like demonstrative pronouns. Again, the plural of “that” is “those.” You can use the same test from before.

That pie is delicious. Those pies are delicious.

5. As an Adverb (a word that modifies a verb)

Usually, when “that” is used as an adverb it conveys a contradiction to an established idea.

Imagine a college student has a big test coming up and all of his friends have told him it is impossible to pass. If, when he takes it, he finds it easier than expected, he might tell his friends, “The exam wasn’t that hard.

Or, a girl whose vacation isn’t meeting her expectations might say, “The Bahamas aren’t that great.”

In this case, “that” acts as an adverb modifying the verb “to be.”

In the first two parts of speech, “that” is usually pronounced weakly, as ðət. It doesn’t receive the emphasis of the sentence. In the other three parts of speech, it is pronounced strongly, as ðæt. The phonetics show the different functions of the word. As a general rule, if “that” is pronounced weakly in a sentence, you can leave it out. If it’s pronounced strongly, it needs to stay.

After understanding how “that” functions as a word in the English language, you can begin to understand how it is commonly misused.

Three Ways “That” is Abused by Writers:

1. It is used unnecessarily.

This is the most common problem with “that.” I see it every day when editing. When you use “that” as a complementizer, subordinating conjunction, or as a relative pronoun, more often than not you can leave it out altogether and still have a well-constructed sentence.

“The complementizer that plays no role within its clause, nor does it contribute any information.” (Klammer, Schulz, and Volpe: Analyzing English Grammar, Sixth Ed.)

When you’re able to remove “that,” do it! It will usually improve the sentence dramatically.

I know that there is work to be done.
I know there is work to be done.

The tower that Connor built out of Legos was impressive.
The tower Connor built out of Legos was impressive.
[Note: You can further improve this sentence by removing passive voice: Connor built an impressive tower out of Legos.]

The difference between a sofa and a loveseat is that a sofa seats three people and a loveseat only seats two.
The difference between a sofa and a loveseat is a sofa seats three people and a loveseat only seats two.

He won’t come back with the same attitude that He left with.
He won’t come back with the same attitude He left with.
[Note: This sentence doesn't use proper grammar, but it’s a trend I see growing in writing. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. This sentence should read, “He won’t come back with the same attitude with which he left.” If I were editing that sentence, I would shorten it to, “He won’t come back with the same attitude.” That helps avoid the formal sentence structure that seems awkward in a world of casual language.]

Above all, avoid “double thats” at all costs.

Some would say that that’s crazy.
Some would say that’s crazy.

I know that that’s the way to do it.
I know that’s the way to do it.

I don’t care that that’s your worst fear; you need to face it.
I don’t care if that’s your worst fear; you need to face it.

2. It isn’t used when necessary.

This is much rarer, but it’s still a problem. Leaving out “that” when you need it can make your writing extremely confusing. Even when “that” isn’t technically vital to the structure of a sentence, you need to use your best judgment to know if it should be included or not. Try reading the sentence out loud or having a friend read it for you.

For example, “that” could be edited out of this sentence:

The promise made to Cynthia was that she would get a new bike.
The promise made to Cynthia was she would get a new bike.

However, when “that” is removed it makes the sentence difficult to read. Is “was” referring to the promise or Cynthia? It’s best to leave “that” for clarification.

Try this sentence: Sarah demanded that her guests wipe their feet before entering her apartment.

I’ve diagrammed this for you to illustrate the optional “that.”

In this particular case, an argument could be made for keeping “that.” The phrase “demanded her guests” could be misunderstood because “demanded” has more than one meaning:

  1. The king demanded that his subjects bow before him.
  2. The warrior demanded an audience with the king.

When a word has multiple meanings, “that” can clear up harmful ambiguity. The last thing you want is for your readers to be confused; at that point, you aren’t a successful writer.

When in doubt, leave it out: Does the sentence still make sense? Does it still effectively get your point across?

3. It is used incorrectly.

This is a very common mistake, and it drives me crazy. Look at the following chart, adapted from one provided by the Online Writing Lab of Purdue University:

“That” is only used to refer to places, things, and ideas. When referring to people or a person, always use “who,” even if the person isn’t named specifically.

Incorrect: Don’t be like the procrastinator that says, “I’ll do it later.”
Correct: Don’t be like the procrastinator who says, “I’ll do it later.”

Incorrect: People that misuse “that” drive me insane.
Correct: People who misuse “that” drive me insane.

Incorrect: She’s the one that got away.
Correct: She’s the one who got away.

Don’t be confused and use who for everything. The only reason I can think of to use “who” for a thing would be to refer to a personified object or animal character in a story:

The fox, who never lost a race, was annoyed that the hare reached the mountaintop first.

When we speak, overusing “that” feels more natural because we can use word inflection not available when writing. On the other hand, if you stop to listen to yourself talk, you might find you use “that” less often than you think. Which of the following feels more natural for you to speak out loud?

“I think that we should go to the post office first.”
“I think we should go to the post office first.”

Likewise, on paper, the second choice is much easier to read. It takes less effort to get to the point of the sentence. In this case, “that” is a hindrance.

“That” is just not right in most cases, and should be edited out when possible.

The Comma, Our Old Friend

Almost every complicated sentence in the English language uses a comma, yet this tiny punctuation mark is often misused or neglected. Many find the task of perfecting the use of commas daunting because there are so many rules to memorize and follow. Although there are certain rules that should remain strict to maintain the fundamental structure of English, the comma can be versatile and should be allowed to change with time to reflect the current need of speakers of English.

Punctuation keeps English from becoming incomprehensible. While new words are added to the English language every day, punctuation marks have basically remained static for hundreds of years. In her book, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss describes punctuation marks as “the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, stop.” Ultimately, punctuation gives a writer the tools of a speaker, like the ability to pause dramatically for the audience, raising volume for an exclamation, or inflect correctly for a question. If punctuation marks are just as important as words for expressing ideas, then each one deserves to be thoroughly studied. In this sense, punctuation marks are some of the most important “words” in the English language.

The word “comma” in Greek means, “a piece cut off.” The comma has caused writers trouble for centuries. Where a speaker can ramble on without a care, a writer must pause to consider the structure of a sentence: Just because I want a pause here, does a comma belong here? Will I look stupid if my sentence has no commas at all? Why do some commas have dots above them? (If you are seriously pondering that last question, I will discuss the wonders of the semicolon at some point in the future.)

Unfortunately, the comma can be confusing to use and, with the introduction of the Internet, relentlessly misused. Many writers are tempted to use them whenever a reader pauses to take a breath. Some writers argue that the original use of the comma was to indicate a pause, so we should be able to use it that way now. There is significant debate in the linguistic world over several issues about the comma, but most of the controversy is trivial (Let’s be honest; aren’t most debates in the grammar world trivial? That’s what makes them so fun). The primary (and most important) rules for comma usage remain untouched.

One debate in particular rises with the use of the serial comma (or Oxford comma), which refers to the comma placed in a list directly before the ending conjunction. For example, in the following sentence, the serial comma is placed before “and”: “Today, I went to class, went to work, and saw a movie.” Many writers frown at the use of the serial comma, including grammarian Steven T. Byington. “The purpose of the comma after [the first item] is to take the place of the omitted conjunction,” he says. “Consequently it is illogical to use it also after [the second item], where the conjunction is expressed.” Others applaud it for its assistance in eliminating ambiguity.

Personally, I love the Oxford comma and never leave home without it. I suppose there is a peaceful middle ground: sometimes a sentence is improved with an Oxford comma, and sometimes it just muddles it up. You decide.

This helpful infographic from Daily Infographic discusses the Oxford comma debate in a visual way:

Another common comma debate is related to the comma splice, the use of a comma to connect two independent clauses. In English, comma splices are generally regarded as grammatical errors and require editing. Microsoft Word will cram a green squiggly line all up in there. However, in her article, “A Few Good Words for the Comma Splice,” Irene Teoh Brosnahan, a proponent of descriptive grammar, defends the use of comma splices, claiming that there is a large gap between grammar handbooks and informal written English, and that the gap can be closed to bring together both styles peacefully.  She believes that the comma splice has been ignored as a legitimate use of the comma, and that comma splices are sometimes necessary to successfully convey ideas. “Even its names are tainted,” she writes. “Comma splice, comma fault, comma blunder, comma mistake.”

Of course, the comma splice is rejected even more often than the serial comma. Comma splices catch the eye because writers have been taught to find them and fix them. However, the flat rule against comma splices fails to see that, stylistically, there are instances when a comma splice is necessary to effectively communicate the meaning of the sentence. Brosnahan lists several practical uses of the comma splice, including parallel syntactical structure, lack of ambiguity, and an effect of emphasis.

Brosnahan provides several examples of unacceptable comma splices. One is, “Seymour is a polite young man, as far as I know, he never even swears.”  Because the syntax is not parallel, there is ambiguity present, and the effect is not for emphasis, the sentence is grammatically unacceptable.  This sentence is acceptable because the syntax is parallel: “Some will gain, others will lose.” “School bores them, preaching bores them, even television bores them” shows that more than one clause can be connected with a comma splice and still be acceptable.

Brosnahan ends her paper cleverly with an obvious yet effective comma splice: “Handbook writers should admit it, teachers should teach it, students should learn it.”  However, Lynne Truss professes a more realistic view: “So many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous… Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look presumptuous.  Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.” Did you notice the comma splice she used (“effective, poetic, dashing”)? No? Then her use of the splice was successful. Although it is true that comma splices can be used emphatically and can be supported with grammar rules, they should be used consciously and sparingly to avoid scorn from readers.

Considering these issues with modern comma usage, writers are again faced with a choice between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. The constant exchange of information through technology means that our language is constantly evolving, bringing in new words, phrases, and, in the case of commas, structural rules. A language must adapt to changing times to embrace new generations that want to use it.  As users of English, it is important for us to understand that grammar rules are only in effect as long as the majority of the population accepts them. Language evolves so slowly that it is rarely noticeable when a change is introduced.

However, like I mentioned before, some rules are strict and should be strict. Let’s look at a sentence I copied and pasted from an article online about top shows on Netflix. The article has since been edited, but I must have read it during an early draft. Here’s a sentence about the TV show “Wilfred” starring Elijah Wood:

“Elijah Wood stars as the terribly depressed, Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan see’s his neighbor’s dog Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit, while everyone just sees a dog. Ryan is left to watch his Wilfred, in this raunchy and irreverent comedy on Netflix.”

Ouch. Let’s ignore the misplaced apostrophe for now and focus on the commas. This writer doesn’t have a strong grasp of how the comma is formally used. Instead, he or she places a comma at every natural pause. Here’s how it should be edited:

“Elijah Wood stars as the terribly depressed, Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan sees his neighbor’s dog Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit,. Everyone else just sees a dog. Ryan is left to watch his Wilfred, in this raunchy and irreverent comedy on Netflix.” [Note: I don’t know what the writer meant to say with the underlined portion.]

Just for reference, here is how the website edited the sentence:

“Elijah Wood stars as a depressed character named Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan sees his neighbor’s dog Wilfred as a man in a dog suit. Everyone else just sees a dog.”

A case can be made for many grammatical “errors.”  The comma is a punctuation mark that is currently undergoing a good deal of change in the English language, evolving into a more flexible and versatile mark. Prescriptive grammarians are panicking, descriptive grammarians are nodding. However, the comma has outlasted many lost archaic marks and will continue to exist as a staple in English grammar.

If you are interested in learning more about the comma, try some of these sources:

  • Brosnahan, Irene Teoh.  “A Few Good Words for the Comma Splice.”  College English 38.2 (1976): 184-188.
  • Byington, Steven T.  “Certain Fashions in Commas and Apostrophes.”  American Speech 20.1 (1945): 22-27.
  • Cannon, Garland H.  “Punctuation and Sentence Rhythm.”  College Composition and Communication 8.1 (1957): 16-22.
  • Singleton, Ralph H.  “How to Teach Punctuation.”  College English 6.2 (1944): 111-115.
  • Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  London: Gotham Books, 2003.