Omitting “that”

Omitting “That”

Some members of my critique group often return my submissions having circled every that I’ve used to introduce a noun clause.

NOTE: A noun clause is a subordinate clause that answers “what?” after a verb in another clause: “I feel that you are mistaken.” Main clause: “I feel.” Noun clause: “that you are mistaken.”

Most of the time, I agree with their judgment and remove the offending that. Sometimes, however, I choose to leave it in, even if it’s not strictly necessary.

The modern mantra of “leave out needless words” is one to observe in a general way, but it shouldn’t lead a writer to slash mindlessly at every word that can be left out just because it can be.

Plenty of guidelines are given for the inclusion or omission of that when introducing a noun clause. The recommendations of the AP Style Guide are often quoted:

• Omit that after the verb to say–“usually.”
• Do not omit that when a time element intervenes between the the verb and the dependent clause.

• Include that after the verbs advocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose, and state–“usually.”

• Include that before clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although, etc.

Recognizing the impossibility of laying down hard and fast rules for the use of that as a conjunction, the AP entry concludes with this sensible remark:

When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.

Fowler mentions some additional verbs that usually require a that: agree, assume, calculate, conceive, hold, learn, maintain, and suggest.

Even if a verb appears on some guide’s “OK to omit” list, writers need to be alert to the possibility that omitting a that could force a reader to stumble, as in these examples:

“The accountant has learned fractions must not appear in the totals.”
“Do you know Mary Smith has left the firm?”

“The doctor feels your leg will soon be better.”

Omitting needless words

Academic and administrative texts are often characterized by verbiage—the use of more words than are needed to express an idea. Verbiage does nothing but hide the real message of the text under a load of needless words, frustrate and dispirit the reader, and weaken the credibility of the author.

Omitting “That”

By Marina Pantcheva

Verbiage is usually caused by two things: the use of needless words and the unnecessary repetition of (parts of the) meaning.

For example, using it is often the case that  instead of often is verbiage caused by the use of needless words. The expression excessive verbiage is verbiage, too, because the word verbiage means ‘excessive use of words.

’ Thus, excessive verbiage means ‘excessive excessive use of words,’ and part of the meaning is repeated.

The most notorious participant in verbose expressions is the word fact. It can nearly always be omitted.

despite the fact that

  • due to the fact that
  • given the fact that
  • in spite of the fact that
  • in the light of the fact that
  • in view of the fact that
  • owing to the fact that
  • regardless of the fact that
  • the fact that
  • to be aware of the fact that
  • to call someone’s attention to the fact

  1. because
  2. as, since
  3. although
  4. since, because
  5. as, because
  6. since, because
  7. although
  8. delete
  9. to be aware that/to know that
  10. to remind someone that/notify someone

Other empty words are matter, case, and majority. Sometimes, they are meaningful and hence cannot be eliminated, but often they are unnecessary for the understanding of the text.

if this is not the case
if this is the case
it is rarely the case that
if not
if so
as a matter of fact
the fact of the matter is
in fact
the fact is or omit the whole expression
in the majority of instances
the (vast) majority of

Here is a list of verbose expressions commonly found in academic texts.

a certain number of

  • a larger/greater/higher degree of
  • a lesser/smaller degree of
  • a person who is xxx
  • along the lines of
  • at a later date
  • at the present time
  • begin to notice
  • by means of
  • by the same token
  • by virtue of
  • come to an abrupt end
  • conduct an investigation into
  • end result
  • few in number
  • first and foremost
  • for the purpose of
  • he is a man who
  • in a hasty manner
  • in order to
  • in the course of
  • in the event of
  • it is an aim of x to
  • on the grounds that
  • on the surface level
  • the intention of X is to
  • the manner in which
  • the question as to whether
  • the reason why is that
  • there is no doubt but that
  • this is a subject that
  • used for xxx purposes
  • whether or not
  • with the exception of

  1. more
  2. less/fewer
  3. a(n) xxx person


Some words are satisfied spending an evening at home, alone, eating ice-cream right out of the box, watching Seinfeld re-runs on TV, or reading a good book.

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Others aren't happy unless they're out on the town, mixing it up with other words; they're joiners and they just can't help themselves.

A conjunction is a joiner, a word that connects (conjoins) parts of a sentence.

Coordinating Conjunctions

The simple, little conjunctions are called coordinating conjunctions (you can click on the words to see specific descriptions of each one):

Coordinating Conjunctions
and but or yet for nor so

(It may help you remember these conjunctions by recalling that they all have fewer than four letters. Also, remember the acronym FANBOYS: For-And-Nor-But-Or-Yet-So. Be careful of the words then and now; neither is a coordinating conjunction, so what we say about coordinating conjunctions' roles in a sentence and punctuation does not apply to those two words.)

Omitting “That”Click on “Conjunction Junction” to read and hear Bob Dorough's “Conjunction Junction” (from Scholastic Rock, 1973). Schoolhouse Rock® and its characters and other elements are trademarks and service marks of American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. Used with permission.

When a coordinating conjunction connects two independent clauses, it is often (but not always) accompanied by a comma:

  • Ulysses wants to play for UConn, but he has had trouble meeting the academic requirements.

When the two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction are nicely balanced or brief, many writers will omit the comma:

  • Ulysses has a great jump shot but he isn't quick on his feet.

The comma is always correct when used to separate two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction. See Punctuation Between Two Independent Clauses for further help.

A comma is also correct when and is used to attach the last item of a serial list, although many writers (especially in newspapers) will omit that final comma:

  • Ulysses spent his summer studying basic math, writing, and reading comprehension.

When a coordinating conjunction is used to connect all the elements in a series, a comma is not used:

  • Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists are the prevalent Protestant congregations in Oklahoma.

A comma is also used with but when expressing a contrast:

  • This is a useful rule, but difficult to remember.

In most of their other roles as joiners (other than joining independent clauses, that is), coordinating conjunctions can join two sentence elements without the help of a comma.

  • Hemingway and Fitzgerald are among the American expatriates of the between-the-wars era.
  • Hemingway was renowned for his clear style and his insights into American notions of male identity.
  • It is hard to say whether Hemingway or Fitzgerald is the more interesting cultural icon of his day.
  • Although Hemingway is sometimes disparaged for his unpleasant portrayal of women and for his glorification of machismo, we nonetheless find some sympathetic, even heroic, female figures in his novels and short stories.
A frequently asked question about conjunctions is whether and or but can be used at the beginning of a sentence. This is what R.W. Burchfield has to say about this use of and: There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. An initial And is a useful aid to writers as the narrative continues. from The New Fowler's Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996.Used with the permission of Oxford University Press. The same is true with the conjunction but. A sentence beginning with and or but will tend to draw attention to itself and its transitional function. Writers should examine such sentences with two questions in mind: (1) would the sentence and paragraph function just as well without the initial conjunction? (2) should the sentence in question be connected to the previous sentence? If the initial conjunction still seems appropriate, use it.

Among the coordinating conjunctions, the most common, of course, are and, but, and or. It might be helpful to explore the uses of these three little words. The examples below by no means exhaust the possible meanings of these conjunctions.


  1. To suggest that one idea is chronologically sequential to another: “Tashonda sent in her applications and waited by the phone for a response.”
  2. To suggest that one idea is the result of another: “Willie heard the weather report and promptly boarded up his house.”
  3. To suggest that one idea is in contrast to another (frequently replaced by but in this usage): “Juanita is brilliant and Shalimar has a pleasant personality.
  4. To suggest an element of surprise (sometimes replaced by yet in this usage): “Hartford is a rich city and suffers from many symptoms of urban blight.”
  5. To suggest that one clause is dependent upon another, conditionally (usually the first clause is an imperative): “Use your credit cards frequently and you'll soon find yourself deep in debt.”
  6. To suggest a kind of “comment” on the first clause: “Charlie became addicted to gambling — and that surprised no one who knew him.”
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  1. To suggest a contrast that is unexpected in light of the first clause: “Joey lost a fortune in the stock market, but he still seems able to live quite comfortably.”
  2. To suggest in an affirmative sense what the first part of the sentence implied in a negative way (sometimes replaced by on the contrary): “The club never invested foolishly, but used the services of a sage investment counselor.”
  3. To connect two ideas with the meaning of “with the exception of” (and then the second word takes over as subject): “Everybody but Goldenbreath is trying out for the team.”


  1. To suggest that only one possibility can be realized, excluding one or the other: “You can study hard for this exam or you can fail.”
  2. To suggest the inclusive combination of alternatives: “We can broil chicken on the grill tonight, or we can just eat leftovers.
  3. To suggest a refinement of the first clause: “Smith College is the premier all-women's college in the country, or so it seems to most Smith College alumnae.”
  4. To suggest a restatement or “correction” of the first part of the sentence: “There are no rattlesnakes in this canyon, or so our guide tells us.”
  5. To suggest a negative condition: “The New Hampshire state motto is the rather grim “Live free or die.”
  6. To suggest a negative alternative without the use of an imperative (see use of and above): “They must approve his political style or they wouldn't keep electing him mayor.”

The Others . . .

The conjunction NOR is not extinct, but it is not used nearly as often as the other conjunctions, so it might feel a bit odd when nor does come up in conversation or writing. Its most common use is as the little brother in the correlative pair, neither-nor (see below):

  • He is neither sane nor brilliant.
  • That is neither what I said nor what I meant.

>It can be used with other negative expressions:

  • That is not what I meant to say, nor should you interpret my statement as an admission of guilt.

It is possible to use nor without a preceding negative element, but it is unusual and, to an extent, rather stuffy:

  • George's handshake is as good as any written contract, nor has he ever proven untrustworthy.

Where Did “That” Go? — Omitting Relative Pronouns

In some relative clauses, a relative pronoun is optional. These are object relative clauses—adjective clauses in which the relative pronoun is the object of the verb in the clause or a preposition in the clause.

  1. Direct Object Adjective Clauses: That is the car (that) I have wanted since I was a child.
  2. Object of a Preposition Adjective Clauses: The exam (that) I am studying for is going to be really difficult.

Note that omitting these relative pronouns is not the same as reducing a subject relative clause, because in subject-clause reduction, the final structure is no longer a clause.

The relative pronoun is only optional in direct object or object of a preposition adjective clauses. Remember: object = optional. Let’s take that, for example. That is optional when it is the object of the verb or a preposition in its relative clause:

Classes (that) people study here are French and Spanish.

-> The (direct object) adjective clause is “that people study here.” The subject of this clause is people, and the object is that. {People study that here}.

The books (that) I need to pay for are going to empty my savings.

-> The (object of a preposition) adjective clause is that I need to pay for. The subject of this clause is I, and that is the object of the preposition for.  {I need to pay for that.}

Even if you remove the relative pronoun from these adjective clauses, they are still clauses, meaning they have both subjects and verbs that are finite (verbs that have tense), e.g. people study here.

Defining relative clauses | English Grammar | EF

As the name suggests, defining relative clauses give essential information to define or identify the person or thing we are talking about. Take for example the sentence: Dogs that like cats are very unusual.

In this sentence we understand that there are many dogs in the world, but we are only talking about the ones that like cats. The defining relative clause gives us that information.

If the defining relative clause were removed from the sentence, the sentence would still be gramatically correct, but its meaning would have changed significantly.

Defining relative clauses are composed of a relative pronoun (sometimes omitted), a verb, and optional other elements such as the subject or object of the verb. Commas are not used to separate defining relative clauses from the rest of the sentence. Commas or parentheses are used to separate non-defining relative clauses from the rest of the sentence.

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Relative pronouns

The following relative pronouns are used in defining relative clauses. These relative pronouns appear at the start of the defining relative clause and refer to a noun that appears earlier in the sentence.

Subject who/that which/that
Object who/whom/that which/that where when why
Possessive whose whose

Replacing with “that” in spoken English

The pronouns who, whom, and which are often replaced by that in spoken English. Whom is very formal and is only used in written English.

You can use who or that instead, or omit the pronoun completely. In the examples below, the common usage is given with the defining relative clause highlighted.

The pronoun that would be used in more formal written English instead of that is given in parentheses.

Including or omitting the relative pronoun

The relative pronoun can only be omitted when it is the object of the clause. When the relative pronoun is the subject of the clause, it cannot be omitted.

You can usually tell when a relative pronoun is the object of the clause because it is followed by another subject + verb. See below, in the first sentence the relative pronoun cannot be ommitted because it is the subject of the relative clause (“the woman spoke”).

In the second sentence, the pronoun can be omitted because “the woman” is the object of the verb “loved”.

Other uses of “that”

'That' is often used to introduce defining relative clauses when they follow the words something, anything, everything, nothing, all or a superlative. It may be omitted when it is not the subject of the clause.

When to use "that"

     After a verb of attribution (said, stated, announced, disclosed), the word “that” often can be omitted with no loss of meaning: 

    He said (that) he was tired. No need for “that.” Better to omit.  

    But if the words that follow “said” (or any verb of attribution) might be mistaken as objects of the verb, omitting “that” might lead the reader down a false trail: 

    The governor announced his new tax plan would be introduced soon.  

    Here “that” is needed after “announced. Without it, the reader's first impression is that the plan itself has been put forth.

Remember that even momentary confusion provides readers with a handy place to stop — and that's not good. A reader should never have to pause to understand what the writer (or speaker) is trying to convey.

If that happens too often (and once may be once too often), a reader stops reading. 

    Time element: When a time element is linked to the verb of attribution, the conjunction “that” must be used. For example: 

    The mayor announced June 1 the fund would be exhausted.  

    The reader needs to know if the time applies to the material that precedes or follows it. Did he make the announcement June 1? (“…announced June 1 that…

”) Or did he say the fund then would be exhausted? (“…announced that June 1…”) In either case, the need for “that” should be obvious.

The need remains when the time element is not a date but a day of the week (Monday, Tuesday, today, yesterday, etc.). 

“Thats” that travel in pairs

     Often a sentence with two parallel clauses requires the expression “and that” to introduce the second clause and link it to the antecedent common to both clauses: 

    The senator said he might run again and, if he did, Myra Henry would be his campaign manager.  

    A “that” is needed after “and” to make it clear for the reader. Therefore, a “that” must be inserted after “said” because of a rule called parallelism — if you've got one “that” referring to the same antecedent, you need another. The “that” after “said” is required even though none would be required had the sentence ended after “again.” 

    The senator said that he might run again and that, if he did, Myra Henry would be his campaign manager.  

    So, just remember. If you need one “that” for clarity, make sure you put in another “that” in any compound sentence. 

To use “that” or not to use “that”?  That is the question.

    The decision to use or omit “that” is not always a simple one. Sometimes it's a judgment call. But don't let your desire to lop off unnecessary words lead you into bad judgment. 
    As a rule of thumb in questionable cases, remember: Using “that” is never really wrong, though it may be unnecessary; omitting “that” in some cases indeed may be wrong.

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