Is “that” a bad word? (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Photo: Anne Toth

Must you delete the word “that” when it connects two clauses in a sentence? Nope. Today, in response to a reader’s question, I restore your faith in “that” and show why you shouldn’t treat it as toxic.

Dear Dr. Wobs:

Why did you use the word “that” in Writing Without Bullshit where it didn’t seem necessary?

For example on page 70 you write, “The problem is that when you write in jargon, you effectively divide the world into two groups.” Instead of writing, “The problem is when you write in jargon, you effectively divide the world into two groups.”

I try to avoid using, “that” whenever I can.

Ed

How much of a problem is “that?”

Languages sites like Ragan’s PR Daily and Diana Urban explain how “that,” used to introduce an independent clause, is a dirty word. I’ve edited writers who delete it as a matter of course. Can you always delete it, and should you?

Ed (is that short for “editor”?) gives an example from my book, and indeed, the sentence makes sense without it. Microsoft Word tells me that of 55,000 words in Writing Without Bullshit, 806 are “that,” or 1.4%. That’s a lot of “that”s.

Some of them don’t start independent clauses — “that” can be a pronoun, an article, a conjunction introducing an dependent clause, or even an adverb, and removing those changes meaning or makes the sentence ungrammatical (examples from Chapter 2 in my book):

You are no longer saying what you mean. That takes a moral toll on you, even as it wastes your readers’ time. (pronoun)

I’ll give you the skills, teach you the tricks, and show you how to organize your day so you get the chance to show that courage in everything you write. (article)

I’ll clear away the motivational roadblocks that are stopping you. (conjunction introducing dependent clause)

It’s not that hard. In fact, it’s mostly a matter of connecting with your own natural ways of communicating. (adverb)

You can’t just cut “that” in these examples. That’s part of the problem with this proposed rule, because “that” is such a versatile word. But you can, in theory, cut it when it introduces an independent clause. Let’s take a look at some examples like that:

As written (Chapter 1): Technology has made it breathtakingly easy for anybody to create content and distribute it to thousands of people. Unfortunately, nobody told those creators what it takes to create good content, so we’re stuck wading through a deluge of drivel.

You know this is a problem. I’m here to tell you that it’s also an opportunity.

Imagine for a moment that you could write boldly, clearly, and powerfully every time you sat down at the keyboard.

After that-ectomy. Technology has made it breathtakingly easy for anybody to create content and distribute it to thousands of people. Unfortunately, nobody told those creators what it takes to create good content, so we’re stuck wading through a deluge of drivel.

You know this is a problem. I’m here to tell you it’s also an opportunity.

Imagine for a moment you could write boldly, clearly, and powerfully every time you sat down at the keyboard.

Removing two “that”s, make it two words shorter. But I use “that” to draw your attention to the next clause. Notice that while I didn’t write “You know that this is a problem,” I did write “I’m here to tell you that its also an opportunity.” My “that” says, “what’s about to follow is an important clause.” I also think “Imagine for a moment you could write” sounds a little off — the “that” tells you what to imagine — and this is similar to Ed’s example. Here’s more:

As written (Chapter 2): Forrester reports that half of [online adults] admit to using their phones in the bathroom. Is it any wonder that their attention span isn’t what it used to be? Forrester also says that if you’re under 70 years old, you’re more likely to read your media online than in print.

After that-ectomy. Forrester reports half of [online adults] admit to using their phones in the bathroom. Is it any wonder their attention span isn’t what it used to be? Forrester also says if you’re under 70 years old, you’re more likely to read your media online than in print.

Does it make sense without “that”? Yes. But as a reader, you need to then be alert regarding where the next clause starts. Your brain is trying to figure out whether “Forrester reports half of online adults” is going to continue with “admit to using their phones” or end with something like this: “Forrester reports half of online adults for drug offenses.” Language authority Steven Pinker endorses this use of “that” in The Sense of Style (p. 122).

My analysis: could go either way. “That” is a word you can sometimes delete, and even when you can, sometimes it helps cue the reader in by setting up the next clause.

Why “that” is not toxic.

If you’ve read my book or this blog, you know I talk about three kinds of toxic prose that you should delete whenever possible: passive voice, weasel words, and jargon. What makes them toxic? They create confusion and doubt in the reader’s mind.

  • Passive voice is a problem because it often hides who is doing something. If you read “Steps must be taken to solve this problem,” who is supposed to take the steps?
  • Weasel words — vague intensifiers and qualifiers — are a problem because they undermine credibility. If I tell you “I am an incredible, truly talented writer, deeply committed to helping you,” the pileup of inflated adjectives and adverbs makes it sound like I’m bullshitting you.
  • Jargon is a problem because it confuses people who are not familiar with it. If I explain that my product “optimizes business intelligence visualization, and therefore flattens hierarchical rigidity,” you have to spend extra time puzzling out what I actually meant.

In all of these cases, the toxic words destroy clarity and meaning. That’s why you need to fix them, not because I have a bias against certain types of words.

When used to introduce an independent clause, “that” enhances clarity, rather than obscuring it. Yes, you can delete it and save a word. But at what cost?

So go ahead and cut your unneeded “that”s if you want. You’ll make things shorter. But as habits go, fixing overuse of passives, weasel words, and jargon is way more important for clear writing.

Send your questions to Ask Dr. Wobs. I’m sending Ed a signed copy of the book — if I pick your question, I’ll send you one, too.

4 responses to “Is “that” a bad word? (Ask Dr. Wobs)

  1. I’m not really fussy about clients editing my work—it’s ultimately their work, anyway. But I once had a client edit every “that” out of a book-length document I wrote. Yes, we saved maybe 70 words, but at the expense of clunkier prose. I would send him your blog but I believe THAT he’s been fired.

  2. As a business writer my duty is to communicate and persuade, and do it fast. In my past career in advertising, I had rule-oriented clients who would tell me I could never use a negative word. My standard answer was, “exactly how, then, should we tell someone to avoid touching a hot stove?”

    Rule 1: No rule — not even supposedly sacrosanct grammatical rules — should ever take precedence over clear communication.

  3. My crusade against “that” is when it’s used for a person. People are “who” not “that.” Otherwise, it’s a perfectly fine word that most people use daily.

  4. As a reader, I like the “that” that introduces an independent clause because it clearly signposts the grammar. As a writer, I use it more often than not. As an editor, I’ve been known to insert it when I feel it benefits clarity.

    Deciding whether to use it depends on the context: in marketing or other material where an informal, conversational tone is the aim, it’s easier to dispense with; in more technical material it can be very helpful even if not strictly required.

    And finally, its function as a grammatical marker is very useful if you’re writing for an audience whose first language is not English, or if your work will be translated.

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