Posted by: Jodi | June 9, 2010

That dratted “That”

Image: blogs.smh.com.au

Poor ‘that’ has fallen into the ‘unnecessary words targeted for removal’ category along with the words just, very, and a healthy selection of adverbs.  I have been slamming my brain against the desk to figure out why.  After digging deep into the virtual stacks I think I might have some answers.

What is ‘That’ ?

A demonstrative adjective

There are four demonstrative adjectives – this, that, these, and those.  Their job is to show if the noun is singular or plural and if it is located near to or far from the writer/speaker.  Examples:

  • This post might be painful to read.  The singular post right here in front of you
  • That chocolate looks tasty. The singular chocolate not in possession of writer
  • These treats might make the post easier to read.  Plural noun now in possession of writer
  • Those treats were excellent. Plural noun no longer in possession of writer

Easy right?  I wish that was all.  It is when we enter pronoun land things start to get fuzzy.

A Relative Pronoun

Yes, ‘that’ is part of the happy little family of relative pronouns.  The other members are who, whom, whose, which, where, when, and why.  They are used to join clauses to make a complex sentence.  I’m not going to delve into which pronoun is used where; that is a lesson for another day.  Today we will focus on when they can be omitted and where they are necessary. There are three functions for a relative pronoun, as the subject, as an object, and as a possessive.

The relative pronoun used as the subject:  Only pronouns who, that, and which can be used as subjects. They are necessary in the sentence and cannot be removed.

  • Here is the blog that talked about adverbs.
  • My Literary Quest is a blog which talks about everything writing.

The relative pronoun used as an object:  In most sentences the sentence reads the same with or without.  All pronouns, except ‘whose’ can be used here.

  • ‘Motivation Monday’ features the posts (which/that) I like best.
  • Tsuchigari writes the material (which/that) I’ve been looking for.
  • Now I’m going to eat the chocolate (which/that) I hid behind the drawer.

The relative pronoun used as a possessive:  Now you can use the ‘whose‘.  It is the only pronoun that can be possessive and can be used for both people and things.

  • The blogista whose blog we follow now has a best selling book. (Someday!)
  • The Eclectic Engine whose material is as fun as its name will be very successful.  (Seriously, go check it out)

Like slamming your brain in the car door, isn’t it?  If ‘that’ didn’t have so many different uses in English there wouldn’t be an issue.  The only place where ‘that’ can be optional is in the relative pronoun used as an object.

How about this – instead of worrying about all these technical and dare I say incomprehensible rules, try this:

When in doubt take ‘that’ out. If the sentence still works it wasn’t necessary.  (If you like it you can leave it.)

‘Nuff said.

I’m going to hide before the grammar police find me!

Materials for this post from:

owl.english.purdue.edu

Usingenglish.com

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Responses

  1. What happened?

    That!

    Wow! That’s awful.

    That it is!

    Ooh, I love that.

    Me too!

  2. “Well, you know what they say about that.”
    “What?”
    “No, That.”
    “What do they say?”
    “Oh, well, they say that it is either an adverb or a noun. It depents how you use it.”
    “It? I thought we were talking about that?”

  3. Rik and Nancy are on the same wavelength today! Thanks for the laugh.

    • And say, Richard, who’s on first…what’s on second? I don’t know…third base!

      Actually (!) I used to get a lot of comments from a particular professor (particular in more ways than one) on my research papers concerning “that,” and “those,” as well as “they.” “They” can be just as pesky as “those” others to eliminate sometimes. Oh well – in my writing, bad grammar usually wins out over “just” about anything else. “That” is the nature of “this” beast!

      • BTW – the last time I tried to slam my brain in a car door, I found out I had to remove it first. Ever since then, I’ve only been able to slam my head in the door.

      • I would leave slamming of body parts in anything to the professionals! Words are tricky little beasts, one must be careful where we put them.

  4. It’s rare that a sentence with ‘that’ in it actually works with it removed. It’s more often the case that an ingrained societal bad grammar makes a sentence seem to work without it.

    • I disagree. If the meaning doesn’t change, take it out.

      It’s the same for both “that” and “had,” as in, “I ate the Oreos that Mary had bought,” vs. “I ate the Oreos Mary bought.”

      Perhaps the original version is more correct, so to speak, but it’s dull and old fashioned to me.

  5. Blogista? Shouldn’t it be Bloguista? Blogista (blog-ih-stah) sounds like a rapper from the south.

    yo yo! Blogista in da house!

  6. tsuchigari,

    I could be wrong, and I usually am (just ask my wife), but my understanding of that/which is to use “which” only in a dependent clause.

    For example:

    Detective Smith found the gun that was used to kill Big Louie.

    vs.

    The prosecutor held aloft a gun, which he believed was used to kill Big Louie.

    I’m not trying to be a pain in the butt. This is the “rule” I’ve been following, which may not be a rule at all, so set me straight.

    [no, I didn’t know that last sentence was going to have dependent clause featuring the word “which”]

    😉

    • There is a discussion about the ‘that/which’ issue on the Purdue site. There are distinct rules concerning the usage, but lately it seems that either can be used at the discretion of the writer. I’m planning on doing a segment on the ‘that/which’ debate soon!

  7. Now seriously, isn’t everyone just over thinking things a bit? I have enough trouble getting to the page- once there, I have one rule- write.

    Otherwise- what is an editor for?

    I’m not so concerned with grammar, my god thats like over analyzing sex- just have the damn sex and enjoy it, don’t think about it so much- just do it.

    I don’t like apostrpophe’s either- does this make a bad writer? I don’t think so. What would make me a bad writer is if I wrote was sh*t. Not if I didn’t get it on the page perfectly.

    I still say it’s Bloguista Señorita.

    • Yo, yo, it’s your blogista in da house!

      Most of us don’t have editors and have to rely on our own skills to make our work shine. This is my way of learning them, by posting. The ‘that’ debate delves deeper than standard grammar rules. I was curious so I looked into it.

      I don’t care a whit about grammar when composing a rough draft, I sit back, hang on, and enjoy the ride. I find it invaluable to know the rules when I go back to revise and edit.

  8. Good post and the comments are very entertaining 🙂

  9. […] That Dratted “That”:  This weeks grammar discussion centered on the word “that.” […]

  10. Wow That!

  11. […] Grammar is Back! The ‘That, Which, or Who’ Debate We had a long discussion about the word ‘that’ a while back, talking about all of its various uses and also where it might not be needed.   If you missed it, click here for the post:   That Dratted “That” […]


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