A few years ago, I was discussing the difference between “that” and “which” with some colleagues. Specifically, we were discussing how to use them in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.
One of my colleagues commented that he heard a grammarian once say that if you eliminated “that” from your vocabulary, you’d eliminate most poor writing.
Someone said the same thing recently in response to another post, and it got me thinking about how it might be a good post topic.
I’m not of the school of thought that we eliminate “that” (see what I did there?) from all our writing. I also don’t see that it’s necessary in all writing. I stand somewhere in between, viewing it mostly as a stylistic choice.
Take, for example, the sentence above:
I’m not of the school of thought that we eliminate “that” from all our writing.
If I removed it, then we’d have:
I’m not of the school of thought we eliminate “that” from all our writing.
While there’s nothing technically wrong with this rewrite, it sounds clunky to me when I read it aloud. Adding “that” seems to make it smoother.
Here’s another one:
The horse that raced past the barn tripped on a hole.
Now without “that”:
The horse raced past the barn tripped on a hole.
This an example of a “garden path sentence” in which the reader goes down one path (The horse raced past the barn…) but then gets confused by what the second verb refers to (is it the barn or the horse that tripped?). Including “that” reduces “garden path sentences”.
So, while I certainly favour cutting out wordiness in our writing, I don’t favour eliminating “that” altogether. If you keep it, just make sure it adds clarity and value to your writing.
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