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.

About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness.

Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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