That ‘that’ May Be Superfluous—Avoid Overusing It

If you’re a writer or editor, the word that can sometimes be a landmine in an otherwise harmless stroll through some well-crafted copy.

As you write or edit, always have as an axiom: Tighten up the copy.

It is my hypothesis that the verbose narrative—primarily a product of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—resulted from the common practice of the time of paying authors by the word.  To support my hypothesis I present Exhibit A: Charles Dickens.  It is a fact that Dickens was paid by the word (for a considerable portion of his career, if not entirely throughout), and it helps to explain why he would use several sheets of parchment and manifold bottles of ink just to describe a teapot.

The covers of this book are too far apart.

—Ambrose Bierce

Tightening up copy entails a variety of approaches, so I offer here one minor but important technique you can use to keep your manuscripts a little bit more succinct.

This is something helpful that I found regarding the use of that:

The word that can be omitted in standard English where it introduces a subordinate clause, as in : she said (that) she was satisfied.  That can also be dropped in a relative clause where it is the object of the clause, as in : the book (that) I’ve just written.  That, however, is obligatory when it is the subject of the relative clause, as in : the company that employs Jack.

Here’s an amusing—and grammatically correct—use of that five times in a row in a single coherent sentence: He said that that that that that writer used should really have been a which.


And that’s all I have to say about that.


3 thoughts on “That ‘that’ May Be Superfluous—Avoid Overusing It

  1. David O. says:

    When I was a technical writer at IBM, our copy was translated into as many as 26 languages. Our editor frequently employed these “thats” saying their use enabled more accurate translations.

  2. gray.edit says:

    Editing for ESL people I frequently find that used when which should have been used.

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