Tuesday, March 08, 2005

That's That

A reader recently wrote to say that one of the best bits of writing advice he had ever received was "you can eliminate the word 'that' from 99.5 percent of all writing."

My reply was on the contrarian side. Such advice, I think, has been taken too literally, and I find myself inserting that more often than deleting it.

From "Lapsing Into a Comma":

A misguided principle of the editing-by-rote school is to delete the word that whenever possible. It's often possible, but that doesn't mean it's desirable. Tin-eared editors chanting the mantra "Omit needless words" produce staccato ridiculousness that, in addition to sounding awful, can cause readers to stumble. Observe:

He declared his love for her had died.

So you're reading along and you find that he declared his love for her. How sweet! Then you get to the end of the sentence and realize you've been misled. He declared that his love for her had died.

Believe is one of the big danger words for the that-averse. Often I'm reading about how the Democrats believe Bush (How sweet!), only to find that they actually believe that Bush did something wrong.

Or how about: They think Bush did something wrong. (Look, Ma, no that!) Are you shuddering at the word think? Don't be afraid. There's nothing wrong with think, just as there's nothing wrong with get. If your search-and-replace function is loaded to stick in believe and receive because the one-syllable words aren't good enough for edumacated individuals, well, cut it out.


Niel Loeb said...

Good point on "that." I have a small gripe about some of your examples, though.
You say one could write "... Democrats believe that Bush did something wrong," or "they think Bush did something wrong."
Actually, you should write that Democrats "say" that Bush did something wrong.
Being politicians, Democrats may say something they neither believe nor think. Being journalists, we should report facts.

Bill said...

Yeah, yeah, I meant to add that caveat.

aparker54 said...

Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, has a similar discussion on "that" in "Omit stupid grammar teaching" in the Language Log archives (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000994.html).

Sandy Lavendale blunted the point of Walsh's post. All he or she had to do was to write "Democrats say they believe that Bush ... ." Consider the venue.

Paul said...

Pullum's page interesting. I'll now attempt a hyperlink. [url=http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000994.html]hyperlink[/url]

Leonard said...

What Strunk and White were on about was the use of the phrase "the fact that." The claim in Rule 17, Omit Needless Words, is:

"An expression that is especially debilitating is the fact that. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs."

(One might note the use of that in the first sentence. This is Strunk's writing, and it shows no ill will toward using that in a sentence.)

White, in his lovely introduction, says:

"The professor devotes a special paragraph to the vile expression the fact that, a phrase that causes him to quiver with revulsion. The expression, he says, should be 'revised out of every sentence in which it occurs." But a shadow of gloom seems to hang over the page, and you feel that he knows how hopeless his cause is. I suppose I have written the fact that a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundredd times in the cool aftermath. To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me, for it seems a betrayal of the man who showed me how to swing at it and made the swinging seem worth while."

White used that twice in the course of a single paragraph, so he is obviously not against its use.

As for me, I sometimes find thats crowding back-to-back, and I'm sure I couldn't get through a day without a basketful of them.

One of the perils of Elements of Style is that (there's that word again! and again!) people have developed a tendency to take its admonitions too far, conflating the needlessness of the fact that with the necessity of that and avoiding the use of the passive voice like it's infected with lice.

Some of these terrors have been wrought on us not by Strunk and White, but by whoever it was who decided on the rules used by the grammar check on Microsoft Word. It is forever trying to get me to change which to that and to avoid the passive voice. It also often confuses complex contructions with sentence fragments. It's pretty easy to blow its digitized mind.