Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When to Omit "That"

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 off." 

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 sample sentences. 

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 bris." 

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! 

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