That. Such a small word. It may be small, but it can cause an avalanche of trouble in your writing. In my opinion, it’s the sneakiest of all the unneeded words in writing. Check your latest manuscript with a word search. How many times have you used the word “that?” Depending on your writing style and personal dialect when you speak, it may be far too much.
I’m that user. (See what I did there?) I’m the one with the mixed up but mostly Midwestern dialect that peppers the word “that” far too liberally in my prose. It is my most recent creative fight. I am in the process of leaning not to use it in the first place when I write, but I still have to do a search for the word in my writing and slay that dragon after the fact.
“When is the word “that” actually needed?” you seem to say.
Not to worry. This article is all about that.
Most of the time when we overuse the word “that” it isn’t needed at all. Read the sentence without the word “that.” Does it still make sense? If it does, lose the unneeded word.
It was three in the morning. She was not surprised that the wombats were sleeping.
I was unaware that the laws regarding wombat breeding had changed.
I saw that the sun was setting over the roof of the wombat barn.
None of these sentences require use of the word “that” to retain their meaning. Ditch it.
Don’t use “that” when you can be more specific. Find a less vague choice.
“Nancy, stop giving my wombat syrup. All that sugar isn’t good for him.”
Here something is needed. “All sugar isn’t good for him” might be true, but it isn’t exactly what we are going for. “The” being used instead of “that” is one way to go. “The sugar isn’t good for him.” However, here I think we have a case of not being specific enough. A better choice is “So much sugar isn’t good for him.”
“Mr. Wombat, you’re very kind, but you don’t have to do that.”
“Mr. Wombat, you’re very kind, but you don’t have to go to such trouble on my account.”
Don’t use “that” to create a false sense of emphasis. “That” can be used to point out which one of a group you are referring to, as in the following example:
“Wombats that are aggressive scare me.”
Which wombats are scary? The aggressive ones. This is needed information. There are many kinds of wombats, but only the aggressive ones are the thing in the group we are talking about, the thing that is scary.
Conversely, “that” should not be used to add emphasis to an already specific subject.
“I like wombats for the most part, but that Penelope is really stinky.”
Unless you have several wombats named Penelope, the word “that” is unnecessary.
“That” instead of “The”
I think this is also related to false emphasis. Sometimes we use “that” when a simple “the” will do.
I wanted to take my wombat to the Kroger, but that grocery store doesn’t recognize wombats as service animals.
Here we have a couple of things going on. It may seem as if we are specifying a certain object in a set, but we have already named the grocery store in question. We all know it’s Kroger, so we don’t need to point out one of a set. Also, I can’t imagine any grocery store recognizing wombats as service animals, so it isn’t a case of this grocery store being singled out from all the other wombat-friendly grocery stores. If there is no real need for “that” in such a sentence, you might want to cut it and go with “the.”
“That” instead of “Than”
It happens to all of us. Sometimes we end up with “that” when what we need is “than.” This one is often a simple typo, but can be difficult to catch.
“There are more ferrets that wombats in the enclosure.”
“There are more ferrets than wombats in the enclosure.”
That instead of Which
This one can be confusing. The two words have similar jobs in denoting one out of a set. Here’s a simple way to tell whether your “that” should be a “which.”
Is it a restrictive clause? Do you need that clause to remain in the sentence for the sentence to have the correct meaning?
Wombats that smell nice make great birthday presents.
“Smell nice” is our clause. It’s a restrictive clause. Not all wombats make good birthday presents, only ones that smell nice. No one wants a stinky wombat for their birthday, so get out of here, Penelope. The sentence does not convey the proper meaning without the restrictive clause “smell nice” so one should use “that.”
Wombats, which are my favorite animal, are marsupials.
Here we have a nonrestrictive clause. The important information of the sentence, “Wombats are marsupials” remains unchanged if the clause is removed. In the case of nonrestrictive clauses, use the word “which.”
Cause and effect. If this then that.
“That” can often be a necessary part of showing cause and effect when used with “this.”
“If this wombat would stop sleeping in the food dish, then that one would not go hungry.”
Be careful with this one. Sometimes it may be exactly what is needed, and sometimes you would be better served by being more specific.
“If my wombat Penelope would stop sleeping in the food dish, then George would not go hungry. Wake up, you stinky thing! If I ever find out whose bright idea it was to give Penelope to me for my birthday, they are going to get a piece of my mind.”
As always, I am not a grammar expert. I am but a lowly practitioner. There may be mistakes in this very post!