I am a…verbose person. To my knowledge and memory, I always have been. It’s not just the way I write – it’s the way I speak, too. But sometimes, as well probably all know, verbose can become wordy. One of the first things I learned in college was that I could lose clarity in long, winding sentences, specifically with pronoun ambiguity.
There it is: the dreaded “that,” sticking out in the sentence like a sore thumb.
If you’re a verbose writer, like myself, grab a sample of your writing and try underlining all the “that”s you come across. I guarantee, you’ll find more than a few in a sizable sample, and sometimes I find more than a few in a relatively small sample.
Why is this a problem? What’s so bad about the word “that”?
It isn’t always an issue, but for verbose people, in modern writing, it can act as a kind of filler word, the way we say “erm” or “uh” when we speak. In some places, “that” is a necessity, but the longer you look at this word in your writing, and the writing of others, the more you’ll realize it’s taking up valuable space more often than not.
How do we root out the nemesis?
I started simple. Because I use Word, I went to “Find” and typed in “that”, searching for every use of it in the work. I still do this for longer pieces, late in the editing process. I look at each use, and I determine whether I can reword, or even eliminate “that” without a change in meaning or clarity. The majority of times, it’s a completely unnecessary word.
Two things started happening the longer I employed this tactic.
The first was noticing as I reread my own work EVERY time I used a “that” I didn’t need. And not only in my own writing, but in the writing of others, including in classrooms I’ve substitute taught in, where famous quotes pepper the walls. You’ve no idea how awkward it is to stare at a quote by someone utterly brilliant half a day and think, “I really want to eliminate the ‘that’ in the middle of it.” It’s astonishing, at first, how many superfluous “that”s sink into our writing, and the writing we see around us.
The second thing was catching myself before I used a “that” in my writing. I’ve already done it half a dozen times in this short post. Depending on a variety of factors, you won’t catch every one as you write, but the longer you practice rooting them out, the more you’ll notice, so when you go back to root them out, you’ll find less and less infecting your work. Can’t control others, but it will be a nice change in your own writing, at least.
Although I’ve yet to verify this in my own life, I expect repeated culling of the nemesis word in written speech may replicate itself with eventual culling of the nemesis word in verbal speech. This could lead to less filler in spoken communication, and clearer oration. Who would argue with such aims?