Column: What’s up with ‘that?’


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Sometimes you can have too many of one thing — like presidential primary candidates, for instance. You can have too many toothpaste options at the grocery store. You can also have too many pillows on your bed. Organization expert Marie Kondo is a household name because of her minimalistic outlook. However, you don’t want to get rid of all of your pillows, right? You need at least one.

In our writing, we tend to overuse the word “that.” We sprinkle little thats into our writing as if they were throw pillows on our furniture. “That” is a conjunction that connects dependent clauses to independent clauses. We need it if a subordinate clause uses conjunctions such as after, before, because, while and in addition to. For example: He said that because he likes hotel waffles so much, he intended to set the alarm clock on his phone before going to bed.

The AP Stylebook instructs us to use “that” “to introduce a dependent clause if the sentence sounds or looks awkward without it.” Here’s an example: I think that I am a robot. Another: I find that no one believes my robot claim. 

Most of the time, we should also use the word “that” before certain verbs, including assert, declare, make clear, point out and state: I would like to point out that I haven’t mentioned Abraham Lincoln up until this point. Now you’re thinking about Abraham Lincoln.

Usually, we can omit “that” when a dependent clause follows a version of the verb “to say.” For example: Abraham Lincoln said he looked better without a mustache. Our inclination is probably to insert “that” after “said.” Also, rewrite a sentence if the word “that” appears back to back.

What have we learned so far? We only have a few reasons to omit the word “that.” In fact, the AP advises, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.” Does this mean we should use throw pillows with reckless abandon? Maybe – but don’t tell Marie Kondo. Or perhaps this is a lesson we can apply more broadly to our lives: Omission can hurt; inclusion never does.