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.
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:
- The king demanded that his subjects bow before him.
- 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.