Writing Style – That

Leah’s question: “Would you please write about the overuse of the word ‘that’? For example, shouldn’t ‘Please read the letter that I wrote’ be better as ‘please read the letter I wrote.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: The use of the pronoun “that” is controversial. Fortunately, it is a style issue rather than a grammar one. In other words, grammatically it doesn’t matter whether you include it or not. It is a matter of personal preference.

Some people insist that in the interest of brevity it should always be removed. (Note: I used “that” to create emphasis around “in the interest of brevity.” This was a personal decision.) Another time, I might write “Some people insist it should always be removed.”

I do usually try to eliminate the word as I think it creates a stronger sentence. However, there are times when “that” is necessary:

1. When it makes your meaning clearer


She admits having read the book the movie was easier to follow. (awkward)
She admits that having read the book the movie was easier to follow.

2. When you want to create emphasis with parallel flow


He is working hard to ensure that everyone understands the reasons behind the decision and that they will support it.

If English is your main language, the guideline is to go by your ear. If the sentence sounds better without it, then remove it. This is a much better rule than saying you should always omit “that.”

If English is not your main language, it’s safer to leave it in than to take it out. As you write and read more, you’ll be able “to hear” when it is right to remove it.