Revisiting that question

Write Now reader Simon Lewis joins the great ‘that’ debate:

Definitely one of my bugbears, that. Take this example: “The teaching medical students receive also leaves them with an incomplete picture.” I started interpreting this as “The medical students who teach…” — and then obviously realised [that] it was supposed to be interpreted “The teaching *that* medical students receive…”. I’m all for brevity, but not at the expense of clarity, and definitely not at the expense of causing the reader to re-start the sentence!

Thanks, Simon.

So it looks like there needs to be a context-specific clause added to our rule.

If the ‘that’ doesn’t add any clarity to the sentence, as in ‘the watch [that] my father gave me’, then cutting it is fine.

But if the ‘that’ distinguishes the word preceding it as, for example, a noun (as it does for the word ‘teaching’ in Simon’s example) rather than an adjective (which is how Simon interpreted the word to begin with, as a way of defining the ‘medical students’) then for goodness’ sake leave it in.

This does, at least, reinforce the importance of another thing we stand for: proofreading!

How do you feel about that?

The most innocuous-seeming topics have sparked incredibly heated debates. Marmite: love it or loathe it? Toilet roll facing front or facing back? [Front obviously – Ed.] Daddy or chips?

Well, we’re about to start another one: whether or not to cut ‘that’ from sentences.

Now, don’t panic. This is not some kind of totalitarian coup – we are in no way advocating the complete abolition of ‘that’ from the English language. It is, after all, very useful.

How else would we be able to declare: ‘I want that one’?

No other word comes near it for its ability to define and specify, as in:

Have you seen the watch that my father gave me?

Incidentally, in this way it is not to be confused with ‘which’, since the latter often presents optional information (which could be omitted from the sentence):

My watch, which my father gave me, has gone missing.

However, anyone who knows Emphasis knows that we favour clarity, brevity, and generally getting on with it. To that end, sometimes the ‘that’s are redundant and just get in the way. Observe:

Are you still talking about the watch that your father gave you?

easily becomes:

Are you still talking about the watch your father gave you?

The meaning is just as clear, the sentence is less clumsy, and you have that little bit longer left to look for the watch.

But don’t let us hog the microphone. Join the debate: redundant place-filler or vital for rhythm and sense? Are there instances where excluding it would only lead to madness? Just how do you feel about ‘that’?