Episode 307: January 19, 2012
Guest Writer: Neal Whitman
Several listeners have asked when they should omit the subordinating conjunction "that" in their writing. For example, should they write “Squiggly said that it was Aardvark’s birthday,” or just “Squiggly said it was Aardvark’s birthday”? For this sentence, both ways are perfectly grammatical, but if you’re following a principle of omitting needless words, you’ll want to leave out the "that."
Watch out, though. Although "that" is optional in this example, you can’t assume it’s optional wherever you see it. Sometimes it’s mandatory. And even when it’s optional, it’s sometimes still a good idea to keep it.
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Bridge Verbs and “That”
Leaving "that" out sounds best with the most common verbs of speech or thought, such as "say," "think," "know," "claim," "hear," or "believe." It saves a word, and it’s how people talk, too. Linguists call these verbs “bridge verbs.”
Non-bridge verbs tend to be verbs that carry extra meaning beyond simply the idea of saying or thinking something, and they don’t sound as good when you omit the word "that." For example, "whisper" is a non-bridge verb and doesn’t mean just to say something; it means to say it in a particular way. It sounds odd to say, “He whispered he wanted another root beer” instead of “He whispered that he wanted another root beer.” Not crashingly bad, but just a little off.
Newspapers are often guilty of ignoring the difference between bridge verbs and non-bridge verbs and deleting a "that" after verbs where it would sound better to leave it in. Here are a couple of examples that I adapted from the newspaper section of the Corpus of Contemporary American (COCA for short):
The department confirmed there were some victims.
Mexican officials acknowledge they are hampered by a lack of information.
To my ear, both of these sentences are a bit off, and would have sounded better with "that" after the verbs "confirm" and "acknowledge."
Sometimes, omitting a "that" after a non-bridge verb goes beyond being slightly awkward and can actually be confusing. Here’s an example from Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage:
Son acknowledges being a member of a minority ... may have helped him turn his eyes abroad early.
The trouble here is that "acknowledge" can be a transitive verb. So when a noun phrase comes after it, such as being a member of a minority, the reader might just take it as a direct object: “Son acknowledges being a member of a minority.” But whoops! The sentence keeps going, and the reader has to go back and reparse it. Garner calls this a miscue; sentences that produce miscues like this are called garden-path sentences. (We talked about garden-path sentences in the episode on Christmas carols.)
Omitting “That” After Nouns
What about "that" after a noun? As with verbs, there are a few nouns that let you get away with omitting a "that." Other nouns sound odd if you do it, and some nouns are downright confusing if you try deleting a "that" after them.
Some nouns that tolerate "that" omission pretty well include "possibility" and "feeling," as in "There’s a possibility he might say yes," and "I get the feeling you don’t like me."
Nouns that sound awkward if you delete a "that" include "fact." A phrase like "the fact Squiggly likes chocolate" is clear enough, but it’s really awkward-sounding. When newspaper copy editors follow an overly zealous "that"-striking policy, we end up with clunky sentences like these examples from COCA:
Calvert Group removed contractors Titan Corp. and CACI International from its social index over allegations they were involved in abusing Iraqi prisoners.
The Packers haven’t drafted a quarterback despite rumors they were interested in doing so.
These sentences would sound a lot better with "that" inserted after the nouns "allegations" and "rumors."
As with verbs, "that"-deletion after a noun isn’t always just awkward; sometimes it’s confusing. The reason is that "that" can perform two functions after a noun. First, it can introduce a relative clause (also known as an adjective clause), as in "the rumor that Fenster heard." Second, it can introduce a clause that just explains what the noun is; for example, "the rumor that Fenster started dyeing his hair."
When "that" introduces a relative clause, it can usually be deleted, provided it’s not the subject of the relative clause. In "the rumor that Fenster heard," we can omit "that" and write "the rumor Fenster heard." On the other hand, if that is introducing one of those explanatory clauses, it usually can’t be deleted. If you do, the reader is likely to mistake what follows for a relative clause. If you remove the "that" from our second example, it starts out as "the rumor Fenster started," which sounds just fine—until the clause keeps on going—"the rumor Fenster started dyeing his hair"—and the reader realizes you’re talking not about a rumor started by Fenster, but about a rumor to the effect that Fenster started dyeing his hair. When I read a sentence like that, it wastes my time because I end up re-reading it and mentally inserting the missing that. It’s another miscue creating a garden-path sentence.
Omitting “That” After Adjectives
As with verbs and nouns, there are adjectives that tolerate "that"-deletion pretty well, and adjectives that don’t. Common adjectives such as "glad" or "sad" sound fine without a "that": For example, "I’m glad you came," and "we’re sad you’re leaving." But when they’re less common, with more specific meanings, you’re better off keeping the "that." "She’s furious you never called" would sound better with a "that," and so would "We’re ecstatic you got the job."