How To Kick the That Habit

What is a That Habit?

The overuse of the word that in a narrative.

Check out any article with a title like “Five and a Half Ways to TightenYour Writing” or “Sixteen Unnecessary Words You’re Sure to Regret” and I’ll lay bets the author will bring up the word that. Why? Because that packs the double whammy of being misused and overused.

Let’s begin with misused and talk about that and his confusing friend which. I don’t usually get all grammartastic in my posts, but we have to do that this time.

That and which are both relative pronouns. In a sentence, a relative pronoun’s function is to introduce a dependent clause. Other relative pronouns are who, whom, what, whose, whatever, whichever.

The difference between that and which is this:

~ That introduces a restrictive clause. A restrictive clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

 ~ Which introduces a non-restrictive clause. A non-restrictive clause in not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Example of that in a restrictive clause:

~ The story of the beloved king’s peccadillo that his subjects found so shocking was leaked by a disgruntled chambermaid.

If you remove the restrictive clause, the sentence becomes…

~ The story of the beloved king’s peccadillo was leaked by a disgruntled chambermaid.

That changes the meaning of that sentence.

Now let’s look at which in a non-restrictive clause:

~ The newspaper, which put out early editions in the morning, was banished from the castle after it ran the chambermaid story.

Leave out the non-restrictive clause, and you have…

~ The newspaper was banished from the castle after it ran the leaked chambermaid story.

Does it matter when the newspaper puts out editions? No. Morning, noon, night, it will still be banished.

If you need a quick way to remember, try this:

~ That is necessary.  Which is optional.

A second point to remember:

~ That does not require a comma. Which is preceded by a comma.

Straight now?

Part 2: When to part with that

That is a habit word. Writers inject it into sentences because that’s how the writer thinks, speaks, writes. Many writers don’t realize they’re that junkies until it is pointed out.

There is no specific rule about when to cut that out, other than to examine a sentence and decide if the that is necessary, each time.


~ Ricky thought that the bandits left town at sunset.

 ~ Evelyn took that to mean he was lying.

 ~ The dog was so tired that he could barely eat.

 ~ I watched my son climb into the school bus and wished that I could go with him.

Remove the thats from these sentences. Only one sentence becomes garbled minus the that. That is only needed if the sentence becomes senseless without it.

Second assignment: I purposefully used that as often as possible in this post. Can you find any I should have cut out?

Perform a Find search for that in your manuscript. If it’s necessary for the sentence to make sense, keep that that. If not, chuck that baby out.

Do you have other habit words that clutter up your writing? Some are just, only, very, quite, somehow, really, always. If so, be aware as you write.

Sometimes being told is all it takes to change a habit, so consider this a calling out.


9 thoughts on “How To Kick the That Habit

  1. Oh, Romona…I always have to search for very, only, just, somehow, seemed…

    I thank God for the search key every time I finish a manuscript!

    Great post!

    susan meier


  2. Romona, thank you so much for writing this particular column. My writing is riddled with thats. Once I delete the unnecessary ones, my world count will really go down. Sometimes just becoming aware of a habit helps solve the problem. I once had an teacher insist that I use the construction “so that”…. Is “so that” one of those unnecessary uses of that (e.g., He took an umbrella so that he could be prepared for rain)?

    Thanks for all your wonderful columns.


  3. Grace, thank you for the nice comments!

    I hate to take on a teacher, but “so that he could be” seems clunky. “He took an umbrella in case it rained” is pithier, don’t you think? Same meaning.


  4. I’m so glad to know there really isn’t a rule. I knew the difference between “that” and “which,” but didn’t understand the function of “that” in sentences. Thanks for clarifying–that! I’ll get stuck on a word in a short or a chapter without realising what I’m doing until I read the piece.


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