Just about every piece of editing advice you will ever receive contains the instruction to totally expunge the word ‘that’ from your writing.
And that is exactly what most people are now doing. So that’s a good thing, right?
No, it isn’t.
Because the word ‘that’ is an important one. It has a valuable place in our language. And its recent – and growing – absence is going noticed. Some sentences now sound quite ludicrous, because they need a ‘that’ or two and they aren’t there any more. They probably were there in the first draft, and those sentences will have sounded perfectly nice and lovely – if a little flowery and over-stuffed with adverbs and adjectives. But then our writer switched into editing mode, rigidly applied the ‘all thats must go’ law, and deleted them. And the result is . . . well . . . just awful. They aren’t proper sentences any more. They’ve got holes where words should be.
And those words are ‘that’.
It was bad enough when all the ‘thats’ started going missing in print. But now the newsreaders (even the BBC ones) have started leaving them out too. Surely I can’t be the only one to have noticed? They always used to get it right, and it sounded right too, but now they seem to have been ‘got at’ by the grammar police. And to my ear it sounds utterly wrong.
Almost as bad as deleting the word ‘that’ is to replace it with the word ‘which’. There are rules (which you can easily look up) about when to use ‘that’ and when to use ‘which’, but most people simply interchange them. They think to themselves, ‘You can’t use “that”, but it needs something to fill the hole, so I’ll have to put “which” instead.’ But those two words are definitely not interchangeable. It’s not just wrong, it can sound pretty awful too, especially if a ‘which’ doesn’t belong there.
What matters most, regardless of all the grammar rules, is that it makes sense. And you can tell whether it makes sense by the way it sounds. If it sounds right when you read it out loud, then it probably is right. If it sounds forced, contrived, not the way you’d normally say it, or like there are words missing, then something is wrong. And what’s wrong is probably that you’ve deleted too many ‘thats’ or replaced half of them with ‘whiches’ . . . in places where ‘whiches’ don’t belong.
The Times Style Guide tells us that we should not be afraid of the word ‘that’. That’s good advice, and I for one am not scared. When I edit other people’s work, I now find myself putting all the missing ‘thats’ back in – and, often, replacing a lot of the ‘whiches’ with ‘thats’ too (which is probably what they were in the first place).
It’s true that many of us do overuse the word ‘that’, both in our writing and in our everyday speech. So it’s right that we should remove some of them when we edit our work. But not all of them. And certainly not to the point that it leaves a hole or sounds ridiculous.
Save that which we love!
Dave Haslett, ideas4writers, www.ideas4writers.co.uk