That’s about That!
by Marcus A. Nannini
I can be as guilty as anyone when it comes to overusing the word that.
“That” said, there is a strong case to be made for excluding up to 90 percent of its appearances in your writing. I’ll admit, if I am in a hurry I can slip and the word will appear. I will catch it in my books during the edits and I also run a word check to take a look at how often certain words appear.
Recently, my editor actually indicated it was appropriate for me to use the “that” word. In fact, she inserted the word herself. I looked over the passage in question and realized, without it the wording would have been awkward. Believe me, I looked at it long and hard before deciding not to reword the entire sentence.
It is impossible to read news stories in such prestigious papers as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times without being inundated with unnecessary use of THAT.
MSN Sports: “Jon Gruden confirmed that the Raiders are…” Drop “that” and it still makes perfect sense without the unnecessary word.
The Boston Globe: “…the Krafts made it clear that to Belichick that Brady isn’t…” Frankly, I’m not certain what the Globe was trying to say here. At a minimum, the first “that” needed to go, if not both.
The New York Times: “Additionally, the State Department announced earlier on Thursday that it had placed…” Again, drop the word as it has no place here.
Use of “that” appears two and three times in sentences so often I do not need to put forth any more examples, though I will do so regardless. Go ahead, read anything in print, be it on the web or hard copy, and you will not need to read very far before you come across the completely unnecessary use of the word.
As you all know, literary agents and publishers look for certain words to ascertain the potential quality of the writing. You may assume “that” is usually on the list.
As a writer, you are already on the alert for repeated use of the same word within a sentence or paragraph, or paragraphs. “That” is one word, the use of which you should be able to stop pretty easily. Doing so simply elevates your writing, and you never know when an agent or publisher may “have it in” for the word. When they run a “find word” search of your work and “that” only appears a handful of times, mostly in quotations, you already have a leg up.
I readily admit, should you check out the various dictionary definitions for “that,” you can find justification for most of the instances you come across. Or I could say: I readily admit that should you check out the various dictionary definitions for “that” that you can find justification for most of the “thats” that you come across.
It is my position, however, if each time you come across the word and you look a little more closely at its usage, you will realize it was likely an unnecessary word and, as such, its use serves to clutter up one’s writing.
Here’s one from the Wall Street Journal: “Some even suggested that a push to expand America’s nuclear capabilities is of a piece with President Trump’s reckless personality that risks getting us all killed in a nuclear war.” Drop the first appearance of “that” and the sentence still works fine. The second “that” would likely be better as an “and.” The second use works, but is it the best word? And yes, the quote is correct.
Clean writing is easier to read. Save the additional verbosity for when you are “setting the table” or otherwise creating a picture in words. My opinion is the word in question here has become part and parcel of everyday conversation and has therefor made its way into our writing. I suggest a writer be aware of the word: each time you find yourself about to type it into your manuscript, stop and consider what you truly desire to say. More often than not, you will either decide the word is superfluous or you will edit “that” out and replace it.
Of course you cannot change a quote. If someone used “that” three times and you are quoting said person, you are locked in. I read a three-“that” quote in a tiny 12-word sentence just the other day. If you change it, you aren’t quoting.
Remember, literary agents and acquisitions editors are looking for reasons to deny your submission and move on to the next aspiring author. They have time constraints, and if your pitch is full of “that,” you will be shooting yourself in the foot, and “that” hurts.
Marcus Nannini began his journalistic career when he published his own newspaper in the sixth grade, charging 25 cents for the privilege of reading the only printed copy of each edition. During his undergraduate years, Nannini was a paid reporter and worked three semesters as the research assistant for journalism professor and published author Richard Stocks Carlson, Ph.D. Nannini is a life-long history buff with a particular interest in World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. His continuing curiosity over several Japanese aerial photographs and the turtling of the U.S.S. Oklahoma lead him to write Chameleons, first as a screenplay and now as a full-length novel.