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That or not that

Writers, what think ye?

A fellow writer recently read a short story of mine and suggested I delete the word that in all the places it was used as a subordinating conjunction. I think he was right in almost every instance.

In the article “A conversation with my copyeditor” by Edan Lepucki ( the copyeditor, Susan Bradanini Betz says: “I’ve noticed, too, that a lot of authors are omitting the word ‘that’ and putting a comma in its place in dialogue or first-person narratives in fiction. I think that’s (emphasis mine) because many throwaway phrases currently used in conversation omit ‘that,’ and the speaker pauses—for example, ‘I mean, I had a really good time at the party.’ Almost every novel I’ve worked on in the past few years had at least one ‘I mean…’ in dialogue. And in just about every conversation I have in real life, someone uses the phrase. But the comma for an omitted ‘that’ happens with other constructions too, as in ‘She was so late, she missed the show’ rather than ‘She was so late she missed the show’ or ‘She was so late that she missed the show.’

She goes on to say leaving out the “that” is usually preferable but that or not that is a choice she often leaves up to the writer.

Grammar Girl ( writes:

“Several listeners have asked when they should omit the subordinating conjunction “that” in their writing. For example, should you write “’Squiggly said that it was Aardvark’s birthday,’ or just ‘Squiggly said it was Aardvark’s birthday’? For this sentence, both ways are perfectly grammatical, but if you’re following a principle of omitting needless words, you’ll want to leave out the ‘that.’”

She follows with an interesting discussion about when and when not to use that “that.”

I often use “that” as a subordinating conjunction out of habit, and then often delete it. I tend to think omitting it is a modern trend, even though it probably started with the original publication of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in 1935.

I’m constantly learning and changing my writing habits, and I think that at this stage of the game I might want to study Grammar Girl’s advice on when and when not to use the word “that.”


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