Today's topic: When to omit "that"
This may seem like an obscure topic, but it's an issue that
comes up almost daily in my one-on-one work with students: When should
we omit the word "that?" Which of these is correct?
1.) "Janis said it's time to go if we want to catch the movie."
2.) "Janis said that it's time to go if we want to catch the movie."
In this example, both are grammatically correct, but most of us prefer
to eliminate unnecessary words for the sake of conciseness and thus
would probably choose option 1. In this example, the word "that" (which
we technically refer to as a subordinating conjunction)
is optional. However, it's not always optional, and I frequently
see people eliminating "that" when they should be leaving it in.
Furthermore, even when "that" IS optional, it's often better to keep it
in for the sake of smoothness and clarity. Let's
break this down.
"That" after verbs:
According to internet "Grammar Girl" Mignon Fogerty (one of my favorite
grammar experts), "leaving 'that' out sounds best with the most common
verbs of speech or thought, such as 'say,' 'think,' 'know,' 'claim,'
'hear,' or 'believe.' It saves a word, and it's
how people talk, too." These are called bridge verbs. Examples:
I think it's going to be a rough winter.
I know you're not feeling well; can I get you anything?
He claims he never met the defendant.
She says she needs more pain medication.
You could follow each of these bridge verbs with "that," and you wouldn't be grammatically incorrect. However, most of these sentences
sound better without it. For example: "I think that it's going to
be a rough winter" or "She says that she needs more pain medication."
On the other hand, non-bridge verbs are verbs that, in Fogerty's
words, "carry extra meaning beyond simply the idea of saying or thinking
something, and they don't sound as good when you omit the word 'that.'"
Fogerty uses the non-bridge verb "whisper"
as an example that "doesn't mean just to say something; it means to say
it in a particular way. It sounds odd to say 'He whispered he wanted
another root beer' instead of 'He whispered that he wanted another root
beer.' Not crashingly bad, but just a little
More examples of non-bridge verbs: confirm, acknowledge, determine,
assert, suggest, demand, indicate, find, etc. Note that we use many of
these verbs in scientific writing (especially determine, assert,
suggest, indicate, and find--often the past tense of
these, as in "the researchers found that..."). Let's look at some
District Attorney Jonas Bartowski confirmed that the judge would likely declare a mistrial.
Professor Jacobs acknowledges that his final exam is challenging.
The author determined that her paper needed significant revision.
The evidence suggests that further research in this area is essential.
Read the above examples aloud, and then read them again without "that."
They sound a bit awkward the second time around, don't they? There's
definitely a difference between bridge and non-bridge verbs in this
regard. It's not all about how our sentences
sound, though. Sometimes omitting "that" can make a sentence
confusing. For example:
Senator Barnes acknowledges being a convicted felon severely limits a person's employment opportunities.
How many of you got halfway into that sentence and thought that the
fictional Senator Barnes was acknowledging BEING a convicted felon? But
nope, the senator was simply letting us know that he's aware of the
employment difficulties faced by convicted felons.
Now let's look at this sentence with the word "that" strategically
placed for clarity:
Senator Barnes acknowledges that being a convicted felon severely limits a person's employment opportunities.
Much clearer, right?
"That" after nouns:
As with verbs, there are some nouns that don't require a "that"
and some that will sound awkward or confusing without one. In general,
it's a good idea to trust your ears (yet another good reason to read
your writing out loud). Beyond that, here are
a couple of nouns that don't always need to be followed by "that:"
Feeling: I got the feeling I wasn't alone in the house.
Possibility: There's a possibility we may have to leave early tonight.
To clarify, these are instances where the use of "that" would be optional.
I'm not saying it would be wrong to use it. "There's a possibility
that we may have to leave early tonight" is perfectly grammatical.
Here are a few examples of sentences that would sound awkward without
"that." The nouns are in boldface. Read these aloud as-is, and then
read them again, omitting the "that" to see the difference:
Somehow, he got the idea that I was gossiping about him behind his back.
The fact that I graduated high school a year early doesn't mean that I'm a child prodigy.
Despite rumors that she misused city funds during her four-year term as mayor, Jane Doe seems determined to stay active in local politics.
Following allegations that they tampered with evidence in several
high-profile homicide cases, the Everytown County forensics lab is
facing investigation by the state attorney general.
"That" after adjectives:
Again, there are adjectives that need "that" and adjectives that don't.
A big part of determining which is which is simply reading the sentence
aloud and trusting your ears. A good rule of thumb, though, is that
common adjectives with broad meanings ("happy,"
"sad," "glad," etc.) can usually take "that" or leave it--"that" in
these cases is optional, as in the sentences "I'm so happy I met you" or
"I'm so sad you can't make it Friday night."
Adjectives with more finely tuned, specific meanings ("ecstatic,"
"incredulous," "furious," etc.) usually sound better when followed by
"that," as in the sentences "I'm ecstatic that I got that job" and "He
was furious that you refused to come to his nephew's
When in doubt...
Generally, if you're in doubt about whether to use the word
"that," put it in. It's usually safer to include it than to omit it,
and as I pointed out earlier, there are very few instances where it
would be WRONG to use it.
I hope you've found this week's post helpful. Happy scribbling!