You can always leave ‘that’ out – true or false?

That's greatRecently, we were asked to settle a dispute between colleagues over the word that.

The example given was:  ‘The consensus was the chief executive was right’ vs ‘The consensus was that the chief executive was right’.

Our correspondent had written the former, but his colleague had insisted on the latter.

Which do you think is correct? Or, more pertinently, which sounds better to you?

When that is used as a conjunction, it’s a matter of preference whether you leave it in or not. For example, I would naturally put a that in ‘it’s great to hear that you enjoyed the course’. Personally, I think it sounds better. I wouldn’t, however, write ‘Personally, I think that it sounds better’. Because, personally, I don’t think it does.

So, in my opinion, the example given is one of those instances where a that improves the flow. I would write ‘the consensus was that the chief executive was right’.

Take care not to confuse

Sometimes, you’ll hear someone claim that that can always be left out. That’s certainly what I was told in my journalism training many moons ago. However, it’s not quite that simple. (Is it ever?)

It’s good to be concise, and concise writing generally aids readability. But be careful when omitting that that you don’t accidentally make a sentence harder to read.

The Guardian’s style guide gives the following example, where the direct quote is: ‘Nothing by way of an explanation will be forthcoming.’

If you write this in reported speech as ‘he said nothing by way of an explanation would be forthcoming’, the reader may begin the sentence thinking ‘ah, he said nothing by way of an explanation’ – and then have to backtrack a couple of seconds later. In this case, ‘he said that nothing by way of an explanation would be forthcoming’ is much clearer.

A versatile word

In Modern English Usage, HW Fowler explains that that has five main grammatical functions:

  • Demonstrative pronoun – That was what I meant
  • Demonstrative adjective – Why did you take that picture of me?
  • Demonstrative adverb – It didn’t hurt that much
  • Relative pronoun – It was not the drug that had done it
  • Conjunction – He had assumed that we would want to see him.

It’s only the fifth of these usages in which that is optional. And there are some cases where it’s more often left in than others.

Verbs of suggestion or wish, such as suggest, insist, propose, recommend and demand, tend to feel a bit bare without a that, as do constructions such as ‘the decision was (that)’, ‘the conclusion was (that)’, ‘the solution is (that)’ and ‘the consensus was (that)’.

If you’d like to read more, there’s a post in our blog archives here: How do you feel about that?

And don’t be afraid to bring out the ‘personal choice’ card on this one if challenged! (Though if you are the challenger, can we suggest that you phrase it: ‘That that that that sentence contains – is that correct?’)

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