Keep That or Drop That?

by RS on December 30, 2011

As part of the new Friday feature that covers grammar, today I tackle the question of when to keep or drop “that.” I went to two books to search for my answer, Practical English Usage, Third Edition, by Michael Swan and The Joy of English, by Jesse Karjalainen to see what these two gentlemen said about omitting “that”in various sentence structures.

According to Swan (and this is directly taken from the book):

We can leave out the conjunction that in an informal style of writing such as:

1. Indirect speech: He said (that). . .

That can be left out informally after many common reporting verbs. Such as:

James said (that) he was feeling better.

I thought (that) you were in Ireland.

The waiter suggested (that) we should go home. 

However, that cannot be dropped after certain verbs, especially intransitive verbs like reply, email, shout. For example:

James replied that he was feeling better

She shouted that she was busy.

2. After adjectives: I’m glad you are all right.

We can leave out the that in clauses after some common adjectives.

I’m glad (that) you’re all right.

It’s funny (that) he hasn’t written.

We were surprised (that) she came.

3. Not dropped after nouns.

That is not usually dropped after nouns. For example: I did not believe his claim that he was ill.

He disagreed with Copernicus’ view that the earth went round the sun.

4. Conjunctions

That can be left out in an informal style in some common two-word conjunctions, such as so that, such . . . that, now that, providing that, provided that, supposing that, considering that, assuming that.

Come in quietly so (that) she doesn’t hear you.

I was having such a nice time (that) I didn’t want to leave.

The garden look so nice now (that) we’ve got some flowers out. 

You can borrow it provided (that) you bring it back tomorrow.

Assuming (that) nobody gets lost, we’ll all meet again here at six o’clock

5. Relative structures.

We can usually leave out the relative pronoun that when it is the object in a relative clause.

Look! There are the people (that) we met in Brighton.

Do it the way (that) I showed you. 

In The Joy of English, Karjalainen argues the following:

 A lot of people skip that in informal, spoken English, but formal English requires it. In the same way that there exists a school of thought that argues that punctuation only gets in the way and slows the reader down. Similarly, another school of thought regards the “clause connector” (conjunction) that as unnecessary.  They argue (that) sentences become shorter, sharper and neater when that is removed. I am not convinced. The danger with regularly removing that from your writing is that “neater” can lead to misunderstanding by the reader, as well as halting the reader’s flow… Overall, the philosophy to keep in mind is this: take care to decide where and when to fade between formality and informality in your writing. The inclusion of that can be a significant marker of where your level of formalities lies. Be sure to include that where it is deemed appropriate, and there is nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution because it does no harm to always keep it in.

And that should cover that.


If you have an questions about grammar, usage, syntax and punctuation, leave a comment and I will cover it in an upcoming Friday.  







I enjoyed reading this, Rebecca. My favorite "that" error occurs when writers use that instead of who or which to refer to people. That (as a relative pronoun) refers to things and ideas only. Of course, we could also talk about "it's" and "its", a nasty common error. Best, Beth

Sharon S Schlesinger
Sharon S Schlesinger

I have a book that belongs on your reference list. Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. I've read dozens of books on the craft, but never one quite like this. Usually the advice from one book on writing to another is repetitive. Stein is unique in his advice and his writing is so well done, reading the book is an education in itself just for how he expresses himself.


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