overusing the word "that"

How to Avoid Overusing the Word ‘That’ in Your Writing

by | May 2, 2016 | GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 4 comments

How to Avoid Overusing the Word ‘That’ in Your Writing

by | May 2, 2016 | GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 4 comments

For a few years during elementary school, virtually every sentence that my friends and I uttered included the word “like.” This awful speech habit led to plenty of well-deserved ridicule, which made me determined to stop overusing unnecessary words. I thought I was succeeding on this front for years, until I started doing freelance writing assignments for a client who wasn’t a fan of superfluous words, including “that.” Then, I learned just how guilty I was of overusing the word “that” in my writing. It was basically my new, written version of “like.”

While phasing out “like” was pretty simple, removing unnecessary uses of “that” from my writing proved challenging because this word legitimately belongs in many sentences. To help you avoid similar grief, today I’d like to share a few tips for avoiding overusing “that.”

When to Use ‘That’ in a Sentence

First, it’s important to know when “that” is really needed in a sentence. This word frequently attaches dependent clauses to independent clauses, and it is strictly necessary if a clause begins with certain subordinating conjunctions, such as before, while and in addition to. “That” also should be used before clauses that clarify a noun.

  • She said that although the sunrise workout sounded like a brilliant idea, sleeping in also sounded good.
  • The notion that their project would be finished by the original deadline was laughable.

“That” additionally should appear after certain verbs, such as contend, estimate and point out. If you’re a native speaker, you can probably intuitively identify many of these verbs.

  • He enthusiastically declared that he would stop procrastinating tomorrow.

You also should use “that” if a sentence would sound awkward without it. If you’re in doubt, include it, since this does less harm than incorrectly omitting it.

When to Leave Out ‘That’

To decide whether you can omit “that” from a sentence, check how naturally and intelligibly the sentence reads without it. Usually, you can drop “that” if it follows a verb that essentially means “to say.” This omission mimics natural speech and shouldn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

  • The children claimed an ice cream break would help them study more effectively.
  • She insisted she wasn’t responsible for the houseplant’s untimely death.

However, it’s usually better to keep “that” if other words fall between the verb and the dependent clause.

  • The kids also said this morning that a television break would enhance their studying.
  • She admitted begrudgingly that she might have contributed to the plant’s demise.

You also can usually omit “that” if it precedes a simple relative clause.

  • Neither of them was particularly excited about the compromise (that) they reached.

Using ‘That’ Twice in a Row

When you’re trimming unnecessary uses of “that” from your writing, be sure to pay attention to sentences where it appears multiple times or even twice in a row. These sentences can be grammatically correct but stylistically undesirable. For example, at BKA, we use Associated Press Style, which requires sentences to be constructed in a manner that eliminates consecutive uses of “that.”

  • He confessed that that plan had been formulated on three hours of sleep.
  • He confessed that they had only slept three hours when they formulated that plan.

Even if you’re not following a strict style guide, it’s often beneficial to try revising sentences to avoid using “that” too redundantly.

Using ‘That’ or ‘Which’

It can be tempting to cut back on “that” by replacing it with “which,” but these words aren’t actually interchangeable. “That” introduces information that is integral to the meaning of a sentence, while “which” precedes information that is non-essential and offset by commas.

  • The first kindergarten class that all 31 students attended was miraculously free of mishaps.
  • The first kindergarten class, which all 31 students attended, was miraculously free of mishaps.

In this example, each sentence has a distinct meaning. The first describes a specific class when all 31 students were present for the first time, while in the second, the attendance of all 31 kids is a non-essential detail.

Got All That?

Striking the right balance between overusing the word “that” and omitting it improperly takes a little thought, but with practice, it should become second nature. Are there other common words that you see overused frequently or have trouble limiting in your own writing? Tell us about it in the comments section! If you’re looking for help on grammar rules, check out some of our other GrammarSpot posts.

Marissa Metcalf

Marissa Metcalf has been writing for BKA Content for over two years. She loves learning about grammar and much more obscure topics while working on legal articles, press releases, and other projects. When she’s not writing, she enjoys running, spending time outside, and trying sports that require an appreciation of heights.

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