Guy Wants People To Stop Using Unnecessary “That”

December 28th, 2010

Hey Dufus –

It sort of bugs me when writers throw an unnecessary “that” into a sentence.  Such as, “This is the largest mollusk that I have in my collection.”  You seem to have some pull out there.  Can you help?


That Guy

Dear That Guy –

When I saw the salutation of your letter, my first impulse was to delete your e-mail without further consideration. However, upon discovering that the body of your letter was the most thought-provoking, insightful, and moving piece I’ve ever read, I decided to answer it.

The writing tendency you mention is a vestige of a more dramatic time. Before the era of radio, television, and cinema, there was an era in which radio, television, and cinema did not exist. The people of that era, without easy access to the vicarious excitement we now take for granted, were inclined to try to make their day-to-day activities more sensational; thus, during this period dramatic pauses were plentiful in speech. Two or three turns of the century ago, a typical conversation went something like this:

LORD SMEGGINHIDLEY: We’ve traced the call … [dramatic pause] … and it’s coming from inside the house!
LORD HIGGINSMEDLEY: “Traced the call”? What do you mean, Smeggy? You’ve been saying some frightfully … [dramatic pause] … strange things lately. Are you … [dramatic pause] … all right?
LORD SMEGGINHIDLEY: Terribly sorry, old man, I just can’t seem to help myself. It’s as if someone … [dramatic pause] … or some thing … from another time and place is force-feeding me impenetrable lines, and although I struggle, I have no choice … [dramatic pause] … but to regurgitate them! And now you know … [dramatic pause] … the rest of the story!
LORD HIGGINSMEDLEY: Listen, old wad, I don’t know what story that’s the rest of. It seems more like a sketchy exposition for a possibly … [dramatic pause] … demonic story. If it is the end of a story … [dramatic pause] … then please be kind enough to tell me the beginning.
LORD SMEGGINHIDLEY: It’s the story … [dramatic pause] … of a lovely lady … [dramatic pause] … who was bringing up three very lovely girls.
LORD HIGGINSMEDLEY: I’m not seeing the connection, old bat. Is this woman … [dramatic pause] … a witch, who is somehow influencing you through … [dramatic pause] … black magic? And are the three girls … [dramatic pause] … her assistants in this fiendish project or … [dramatic pause] … are they also her victims?
LORD SMEGGINHIDLEY: Something has happened to … [dramatic pause] … The Children.
LORD HIGGINSMEDLEY: You mean the three girls, old bag? What’s … [dramatic pause] … the trouble with them?
LORD SMEGGINHIDLEY: There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby … [dramatic pause] … IT’S ALIVE!
LORD HIGGINSMEDLEY: I don’t know who this … [dramatic pause] … Davis baby is, but I believe life is generally looked upon as a positive quality in a baby. It’s difficult to imagine someone thinking otherwise unless that someone happens to be … [dramatic pause] … the spawn of Satan! It would be a good idea for you to start speaking plainly and comprehensibly, old cataract … [dramatic pause] … if you want to avoid any inquiries into your bizarre behavior.
LORD SMEGGINHIDLEY: I know what you did last summer.
LORD HIGGINSMEDLEY: Are you out of your mind, you old undergarment?! There wasn’t even a … [dramatic pause] … dramatic pause in that utterance! And if you’re suggesting that your intention is … [dramatic pause] … blackmail, I might remind you that I was privy to a few of your summer exploits as well!
LORD SMEGGINHIDLEY: [Begins speaking in tongues; his gibberish is punctuated with dramatic pauses and snatches of dialogue from circa-1970s horror movies.]
LORD HIGGINSMEDLEY [apprehensively, as Lord Smegginhidley, now seemingly oblivious to his surroundings, continues speaking]: Pardon me for just a moment, old toenail clipping … [dramatic pause] … I need to check on Reginald and Sylvia in the drawing-and-quartering room. [Leaves quietly in order to make arrangements to have Lord Smegginhidley tarred and feathered as a witch.]

As you’ve probably surmised, That Guy, during the era in question, the sentence you offered as an example would have been delivered orally with a dramatic pause in the middle (“This is the largest mollusk … [dramatic pause] … that I have in my collection”), and you will notice that this delivery does not work as well without the “that” (“This is the largest mollusk … [dramatic pause] … I have in my collection”). Contrary to popular belief, the attention spans of people in those bygone days were no better than those of people in the present day, and it was not uncommon for a listener to lose interest during a long dramatic pause and start thinking about something else. Hence, it was best for the material following a dramatic pause not to sound like it could be the beginning of a new thought, and “I have in my collection” could be taken as the preface of a listing of items in the speaker’s collection if not tied in with the material preceding the pause with “that.”

As you correctly observe, “that” in sentences like the one you cite is unnecessary and even slightly irritating in today’s world of infrequent dramatic pause use. You are also correct in your observation that I have considerable influence on trends in the grammatical sphere, and I believe we can expect the use of the unnecessary “that” to meet its demise within a week of the publication of this post.

Please let me know if there is anything else that I can do for you.



Confidential to anyone who has written to me and not received a response: I recently checked the “Junk” folder in my e-mail account for the first time and found a couple of perfectly good letters in among the junk. If you’ve written me a perfectly good letter and have not heard back from me, chances are, your letter ended up in my “Junk” folder and was automatically deleted after 20 days spent languishing among ads for cheap meds and work-from-home opportunities. I now check my “Junk” folder semireligiously, so please try again.

Confidential to Rhonda: Help me.