LawProse Lesson #127: Underuse of “that”

LawProse Lesson #127: Underuse of “that”

Wrongly suppressed that.       Although in many constructions it’s perfectly permissible — and even preferred — to omit that {the book I read last week}, the word is often useful and even necessary. We need it as a restrictive relative pronoun {the book that won a Pulitzer}; as a demonstrative adjective {that book is the one you want}; and as a conjunction {I read that the book was out of print}. In formal writing, that is often ill-advisedly omitted, creating a miscue or an ambiguity, even if only momentarily. In particular, the conjunction that should usually be retained to introduce clauses following verbs such as acknowledge, ask, believe, claim, doubt, hold, indicate, say, and suggest. Consider what notable grammarians have said about unnecessarily omitting that:
  • [V]erbs with which the omission is easiest are those of saying, denying, thinking, feeling, hoping, fearing, etc.; but not all those of cognate meaning will do without that. Verbs of answering, retorting, rejoining, complaining, and others known only by one’s idiomatic sense will rarely tolerate the omission. . . . It is obvious, too, that when the omission of that gives a false lead, it must be restored.” Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 320-21 (1966).
  • “The omission of the conjunctive that sometimes causes a momentary confusion.” Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage 340 (1982).
  • “A misguided principle of the editing-by-rote school is to delete the word that whenever possible. It’s often possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s desirable. Tin-eared editors chanting the mantra ‘Omit needless words’ produce staccato ridiculousness that, in addition to sounding awful, can cause readers to stumble.” Bill Walsh, Lapsing into a Comma 212-13 (2000).
      Omission can cause serious problems when a time element occurs at the outset of the subordinate clause. For example: She said today she was filing the brief. Did she say it today or did she file it today? Correct placement of that would clarify: She said that today she was filing the brief (she’s filing it today). She said today that she was filing the brief (she said it today). One technique to consider for omitting a pesky that: if a verb follows, you can often change the verb to an –ing word: decision that reversed a judgment becomes decision reversing a judgment. This type of edit will prevent such awkward constructions as the regulation that provides that . . . . Bottom line: if you’re even moderately sophisticated as a writer, you’ll never declare an overt bigotry against the poor little word that. Sources: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 887 (3d ed. 2011). Garner’s Modern American Usage 808 (3d ed. 2009). Garner, The Winning Brief 258-60 (2d ed. 2004). The Chicago Manual of Style § 6.22, at 314, (16th ed. 2010). Thanks to Michael D. Ryan for suggesting this topic.  

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