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.”
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.
When can I remove the word "that" in a sentence?
I am adding to what StoneyB said in answer to the question, “When can I remove the word “that” in a sentence?” I was asking the same question myself, about when to or not to use “that.” The sentences I was unsure of using were “I am sorry that I did not call you,” or “I am sorry I did not call you.”
While reading StoneyB's response, I was having a hard time absorbing to “parts of speech” terminology.
I never did well with that in high school – my solution was to verbalize the sentence in my mind and if it sounded correct, I went with it! This method may work okay for those who have heard and spoken Americanized English for a long time, but is not the best advice for the English Language Learner.
All I have done is to add some of my own personal examples and maybe clarify the parts of speech that StoneyB discussed in his post. I stand to be corrected by anyone, please.
- Knowing when or when not to use the word “that” in a sentence when you feel that you use it too often:
- Example 1 – “that” – relative pronoun:
- “It's the same meatloaf that (used as a relative pronoun) we had yesterday.”
- You can leave out the “that” in the sentence above because “it acts as the direct object of the verb in the relative clause” (StoneyB, 2014).
Direct object of the verb? – Leave it out.
“It's the same meatloaf we had yesterday.” – Correct.
However, if it is used as the ''subject of the verb in the relative clause” (StoneyB, 2014), you could not leave it out:
“It's the same meatloaf that (subject) won (verb) in the cook-off.”
Subject of the verb? – Leave it in.
“It's the same meatloaf ___ won in the cook-off.” – Not correct.
- Example 2 – “that” – subordinating conjunction:
- “I am sorry that (used as a subordinator) I did not call you.”
- That appears in front of the subordinate clause and behind the verb (am), in the main clause.
- “I am sorry I did not call you.”
- Both uses are fine.
- Example 3 – “that” – subject of the sentence:
- If “that” is the subject of the sentence, it cannot be left out:
“That I am inconsiderate is a matter to be discussed later.” – Correct.
Example 4 – “that” – conjunction which does not appear and is not spoken close to the main verb in the sentence:
When the verb in the main clause is separated from the subordinate clause by a lot of other words, such as those used as part of an adverbial phrase, the that must remain for clarity in writing. In spoken English, it may be okay to leave it out, but it sounds a bit lazy to me.
Formal writing: “I am sorry in so, so, very many ways that (still used as a conjunction) I did not call you.” – Correct.
Spoken English: “I am sorry in so, so, very many ways I did not call you.” – Okay, but awkward.
Example 5 – “that” – predicative complement used with a verb:
Without the predicative complement, the sentence would not tell us much – for example, “Many folks thought,” does not stand well on its own, giving very little information about what was thought.
“Many folks thought that my meatloaf was better.” – Correct.
“Many folks thought my meatloaf was better.” – Okay in speech, but not so good in writing.
English Language Learners Stack Exchange, (2014). When can I remove the word “that” in a sentence? – asked by T2E on May 26, 2013. Answered by StoneyB on May 27, 2013, edited March 7, 2014.
Englishpage, (2015). Forum thread: English Language Questions: Predicative Complement. Asked by Camilus, Member, April 17, 2004. Answered by Pete, Super Moderator, April 19, 2004.
When Not to Cut "That" From Your Sentences
If you are like most people in my business writing classes, you want to write more concisely. It's a terrific goal. Concise writing is much more likely to be read and acted on than wordy messages. But in your efforts to trim extra words, be sure to keep the conjunction that when your readers need it.
Your readers need that whenever leaving it out might cause confusion. For example, this sentence may confuse readers:
- The team has identified the workflow needs several more screens.
When I began reading the sentence, I understood “The team has identified the workflow needs.” Then I read on and realized that the team had identified something different. The beginning of the sentence had misled me.
This revised sentence, which includes the word that, avoids possible confusion:
- The team has identified that the workflow needs several more screens.
Here are more examples that may confuse readers:
- Mr. Davidson appreciates Dan and Steve from Sales will also be at the trade show.
- She noticed more films this year did not have a big-name star.
- He announced the new budget increases our investment in schools by 20 percent.
Scanning those examples, readers may first think:
- Mr. Davidson appreciates Dan and Steve from Sales.
- She noticed more films this year.
- He announced the new budget increases.
But continuing in each sentence, the reader thinks–huh?–and has to start again.
Any confusion disappears with the conjunction that inserted:
- Mr. Davidson appreciates that Dan and Steve from Sales will also be at the trade show.
- She noticed that more films this year did not have a big-name star.
- He announced that the new budget increases our investment in schools by 20 percent.
When you wonder whether you can remove that from a sentence, read it without that and notice whether anything runs together that might mislead the reader. Would these sentences be clear without that?
- He told me that he would arrive around midnight.
- The jury believed that two of the witnesses to the accident were not telling the truth.
- I understood that the sales projections given at the meeting were inflated.
- Please ensure that every client gets a copy of the presentation booklet.
I believe we can eliminate that from two of the sentences above, but we must keep it in the other two. How about you?
In my view, the sentences that work without the conjunction that are 1 and 4. We can leave that out with no risk of confusion. (Note: In Number 4, I would still keep that because I think the sentence sounds better with it.)
In Number 2, the clause “The jury believed two of the witnesses” would mislead readers.
In Number 3, “I understood the sales projections” takes readers in the wrong direction.
The newly published Microsoft Manual of Style recommends keeping that whenever it is optional, because the word helps international readers understand complex sentences. The manual states, “Optional words often eliminate ambiguity by clarifying sentence structure.” While I do not always keep that in my sentences, I agree with the principle.
What do you think about that?
Which or That?
While both which and that can be used in other constructions, the confusion usually arises when they are being used as relative pronouns to introduce adjective (or relative) clauses. In the examples below, we have bracketed the adjective clauses. (Remember that a clause is simply a group of words containing a subject and a verb.):
- Our house [that has a red door and green shutters] needs painting.
- Our house, [which has a red door and green shutters], needs painting.
- The classrooms [that were painted over the summer] are bright and cheerful.
- The classrooms, [which were painted over the summer], are bright and cheerful.
In all four cases, the adjective clause tells us something about either the house or the classrooms, but the choice of which or that changes the way we should read each sentence.
How They Differ in Meaning
In the first sentence, the use of that suggests that we own more than one house and therefore must explain to you that we are talking about a particular house of ours—the one with a red door and green shutters.
We cannot leave out that adjective clause because it is essential to your understanding of the sentence; that is, you wouldn’t know which one of our houses needs the paint job without that clause, without that information.
The second sentence tells you that we own only one house and we are simply telling you—in case you want to know—that it happens to have a red door and green shutters. We could leave out the information in that adjective clause and the sentence would still make sense.
The third sentence, because it uses that to launch its adjective clause, tells us that only SOME of the classrooms were painted over the summer.
If we omitted the clause “that were painted over the summer,” we would be left with “The classrooms are bright and cheerful,” a statement that would not be accurate since it would imply that ALL the classrooms are bright and cheerful.
In this sentence, therefore, the adjective clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
“That” Clauses Are Restrictive/Essential
We call the adjective clauses in sentences one and three essential or restrictive because they restrict—or limit—the meaning of the nouns they modify. In the case of sentence three, they tell us that we are talking ONLY about the classrooms that were painted over the summer—not the others.
“Which” Clauses Are Nonrestrictive/Nonessential
The which clause in the fourth sentence is what we call a nonessential—or nonrestrictive—clause. Since that sentence intends to tell us that ALL the classrooms were painted, the information in the adjective clause is not essential. That is, the sentence would be clear even type if the clause were omitted.
The rule of thumb, then, is that which clauses are nonrestrictive (nonessential) while that clauses are restrictive (essential).
And They Need Commas
Nonrestrictive clauses and phrases are set off from the rest of a sentence by a pair of commas (as in our examples above) or by a single comma if they come at the end of the sentence. (Example: “I took a vacation day on my birthday, which happened to fall on a Monday this year.”)
Not Everyone Understands
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, regarded by most writers as the authority on such matters, tells us that it is now common for which to be used with either kind of clause, while that must be used only for restrictive clauses. In fact, though, careful writers continue to make the distinction described above.
This Distinction Is Important in Legal Contexts
Attorneys are taught to use which for nonrestrictive clauses and that for restrictive clauses so as not to cause a misreading in legal documents. It seems just as important that we work to avoid misreadings in all writing, not only in situations when a legal ruling might be at stake.
One Final Point
Remember that we should use who and whom instead of which or that in reference to people (and animals with names, such as pets):
- These are the students who [NOT that] just finished their exams.
- Everyone who [NOT that] came to my house for dinner brought food to share.
- The technician whom [not that] I called this morning was at my house by noon.
Which pronoun—which or that—belongs in each blank below?
- Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material ________ was going to be on the test.
- Carlos gave Maria notes from chapters 3 through 7 _________ were going to be on the test.
- Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation _________ they took to the coast.
- The teachers gave awards to all paintings ________ showed originality.
- Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material that was going to be on the test. [To say simply “Carlos gave Maria a study guide for material” would not be complete information. We need the adjective clause to tell us which material, in particular.
Since the information is, therefore, essential, we use that and no comma.]
- Carlos gave Maria notes from chapters 3 through 7, which were going to be on the test.
[The fact that chapters 3 through 7 were going to be on the test is not essential to our understanding exactly which notes Carlos gave Maria, so we use a comma and which.]
- Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation that they took to the coast.
[If we said simply “Mark and Sarah took their children on every vacation,” we would be inaccurate. The information in the adjective clause is essential to our understanding that the children went on certain vacations and not others. Therefore, we use that and no comma.
- The teachers gave awards to all paintings that showed originality. [To say simply “The teachers gave awards to all paintings” would be inaccurate. The information in the adjective clause is, therefore, essential to the meaning of the sentence, so we use that and no comma.]
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