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?

  1. He told me that he would arrive around midnight.
  2. The jury believed that two of the witnesses to the accident were not telling the truth.
  3. I understood that the sales projections given at the meeting were inflated.
  4. 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?

Lynn
Syntax Training

8 COMMENTS

  1. Hi, I quite agree with you, but I realize that when I type a sentence using that, at first it seems logical but after awhile it seems better without “that” or such conjunctions.

    Though in the above article, using that in sentence 2. and 4. seems appropriate.

    In sentence 1. when conversing with a friend using that feels appropriate whereas in an office not using that would be more logical. That seems to give a reason to converse further when used with a friend in this case.

  2. Thanks for your views. I agree that we often choose to sound different with our friends.

    I do think conversation is different from writing: We can use our voices to emphasize parts of the sentence, and we can quickly clarify what we mean in an exchange. Whether we use “that” is probably less important when we talk.

    Lynn

  3. I prefer retaining “that” in nearly all writings as dictated by my ear. As you mentioned, it is helpful when most of the readers are from diverse backgrounds.

  4. Good topic. I have struggled with this and more often omit (or delete) “that.” I think in technical writing, “that” tends to be overused. People use it as a crutch instead of writing simpler sentences saying more precisely what they mean. I was re-reading your examples above, the confusion in most of them comes because the sentences describe who does something. If they didn’t do that (ha) they wouldn’t need “that.”

    “The workflow needs several more screens” is clear. Inserting who determined it needed screen is what makes the need forh”that” a bit more dicey.

    Cheers!

  5. I’m often confused by IT technical writing that is too terse. Thank you for this clarifying insight!

  6. Hi, Jennifer. Great observation! You probably can imagine that I struggled to come up with sentences to illustrate my points. (Yet I just wrote another one with “that.” Oops.)

    It would be nice if we could always keep things simple.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Lynn

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