A simple explanation about using “that”

by Davina on May 1, 2012

Pronouns, adjectives and adverbs aside

One of the most overused words is that, but did you know that 90 percent of the time it can be left out of a sentence?

I have read detailed explanations about how that is used as a pronoun, an adjective or an adverb. Explicit posts outline how that joins an independent clause and a dependant clause, and how it may be used after a verb of attribution, such as says or announced.

I think this is too much information, so I decided to keep things simple.

1. That joins two thoughts to clarify or add information.
Example: She bought the dress that was on sale.

You cannot leave that out of this sentence, but you could replace it with which if you add a comma after dress. Using that offers a direct statement. Using which adds an afterthought: By the way, the dress was on sale.

2. That emphasizes or measures the extent of something.
Example: I wouldn’t go that far.

If you left that out of this sentence it would be vague, but still grammatically correct.

3. That introduces or designates something specific.
Example: Look at that tree.

Following, are some examples that illustrate when that is needed for clarity and when it can be omitted.

When should you use “that”?

Leaving that out of a sentence may confuse the reader, causing them to reread.

  • The music instructor noticed [that] the students who practised often were the most confident in her class.
    The music instructor didn’t notice the students, she noticed something about the students.
  • The teacher announced [that] the winner of the contest would be revealed soon.
    The teacher didn’t announce the winner, she announced something about the winner.
  • The manager announced [that] on May 15 the store would be closing.
    If you left that out, you might wonder if the manager made the announcement on May 15 or if the store was closing on May 15.
  • While stuck in traffic, Dana realized [that] she was running late and [that] she had left her cellphone at home.
    Dana has remembered two different things, both of which require the use of that. This is known as the double that.
  • Did you know [that] 90 percent of the time “that” can be left out of a sentence?
    If you left that out, it could sound like you know this 90 percent of the time.

When can you omit “that”?

In these examples, that is not required.

  • She said [that] she was hungry.
  • The book [that] I just bought is a bestseller.
  • I knew [that] the baby was tired.
  • Shirley knows that if she doesn’t remember to wake Jessica, [that] she will be late for school.
    This illustrates the use of a double that. Because both thoughts are related, the second that is unnecessary.

These sentences read smoothly without that, but it’s up to you whether you use it or not. Using that will offer a more formal and precise tone to your writing.

Unless you are studying for a grammar exam, if the meaning of your sentence is clear and the reading flows smoothly, you’re good! When you’re in doubt, get a second opinion or use that. If you’re using it too often, rewrite so it’s not necessary.

Using that when it’s unnecessary is better than omitting it when it is needed. According to the AP Stylebook, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

It didn’t hurt this verse in the nursery rhyme, This Is The House That Jack Built:

This is the farmer sowing his corn, that kept the cock that crowed in the morn, that woke the priest all shaven and shorn, that married the man all tattered and torn, that kissed the maiden all forlorn, that milked the cow with the crumpled horn, that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

If you have questions about using “that,” please ask. If you have a grammar topic you’d like me to write about, I’m open to requests.

Thanks to Stephen at Simply Stephen, for requesting this topic. He blogs about sustainable living and if that is something you’re interested in, surf through his archives. He shares some interesting and creative ideas.

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Mike Goad May 1, 2012 at 4:03 am

That’s one of the the grammar areas (that) I do tend to abuse, too much “that,” at that. ;)
Mike Goad´s last blog post ..Group of children. Russian Empire. [abt. 1909]

simply stephen May 1, 2012 at 8:53 am

Davina…thanks so much for that. ;)

I have been trying to eliminate “that” as much as possible (another over used clause), but blogging is often about sharing a spur of the moment thought or getting a story told quickly. Many of them go unnoticed.

I do find (that) creating shorter sentences and eliminating it completely can often make a cleaner more poignant read.

Thanks again for mentioning me and this posting as a good permanent point of reference.
simply stephen´s last blog post ..bear paws, cordless saws and tiresome laws

Julie Walraven May 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Hi Davina, As a resume writer, you know (that) I need to write crisper and tighter so this post really caught my attention. I have been sorting out when “that” is needed versus when I use the comma and “which.” But this is a solid reminder resource! Thanks!
Julie Walraven´s last blog post ..What’s in it for me? versus How can I help you?

Hilary May 4, 2012 at 4:14 am

Hi Davina .. would you put a comma after dress, in that first sentence if you used which?

I am compiling an email – I’ll get to it sometime! So pleased you reminded me about The Hose That Jack Built .. such a fun poem ..

Cheers and I’ll be back for the dialogue punctuation … have a great weekend .. Hilary
Hilary´s last blog post ..Feast for the senses – a celebratory end to the A – Z Challenge …

Hilary May 4, 2012 at 4:15 am

Spot the error … a Jannie typo?!
Hilary´s last blog post ..Feast for the senses – a celebratory end to the A – Z Challenge …

Davina May 5, 2012 at 11:45 am

LOL, Mike
I think “that” just rolls off the tongue easily. I’m the same way. And after writing this post I find that I see “that” everywhere and am deleting it more than I used to.

You’re very welcome, Stephen.
Thanks for asking for this post. It was a good idea. I have more of your requests saved for later posts, in addition to some from a few others.

Oh, good pun ;) Too funny. I agree with you about blogging. The “rules” are a little looser, and it of course depends on your blogging purposes, too. I agree with you about the shorter sentences, especially because putting many thoughts into one sentence may increase the need for “that” since it acts as a conjunction.

Hi Julie.
You’re welcome :) I’m very glad to hear that this has been helpful. If you need any questions answered just let me know.

Hi Hilary.
Yes, you are correct. You would put a comma after dress when using which. Thanks for asking.

So it would then read, “She bought the dress, which was on sale.”

Giggle :-) I saw that typo and it made me chuckle. I’ll correct it for you if you like, but that’s not necessary. I look forward to your email. I understand that you’ve been busy so I can wait :) I’ve been a little tied up myself and that is why it’s taken me so long to get to these replies!

Pete Goumas May 16, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Hi Davina,I liked the point when we could omit ‘that’ and sometimes we overused this word. The examples make it easy to know how to use word ‘that’.
Pete Goumas´s last blog post ..What Is Mythology

Davina May 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Hi Pete.
I’m glad you found the examples helpful. It is interesting to note how many times we can do without using “that” when we read back through what we’ve written. Too many is like a heavyweight in the writing.

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