One of my most common crutch words is the word that. So when I’m editing a story, that is one of the words I put on my Search and Destroy list.
However, that is sometimes needed for a sentence to make sense. Other times, it’s just fluff that interrupts the flow. So how can you tell when it’s needed and when it’s not?
The key is understanding which part of speech the word that is being used as. It can be a pronoun, an article, a determiner, part of an appositive phrase, and a conjunction (I know you’re singing that tune in your head.)
As a Pronoun
As you may recall, a pronoun is a type of word that acts in place of a noun. Common pronouns include he, she, him, her, they, them, it.
Turns out that can be used as a pronoun. Here’s a couple of examples:
That ruined my day.
Who did that?
If you remove the word THAT, the sentence no longer makes sense. So as a pronoun, you probably want to keep it.
As an article
Articles include such words as a, an, and the. The word that can also be used as an article.
Did you see that werewolf?
Again, if you remove the word that, the sentence sounds weird.
As a Determiner
A determiner is similar to an article and generally answers the question: Which one?
I want that girl!
Not just any girl. THAT girl! If you remove the word that, the sentence loses meaning and sounds weird.
As Part of an Appositive Phrase
An appositive phrase is a subordinate phrase that provides more information about something in the main clause.
He heard a noise that brought up bad memories.
In the above example, the appositive phrase that brought up bad memories gives the reader more information about the noise. You can’t remove the word that without breaking the sentence.
As a Conjunction
A conjunction connects two independent phrases. Consider these examples:
She was sure that she would be late.
He noticed that people were staring.
In each case the word that connects two phrases that could stand on their own.
But you can also keep them connected and just remove that. The sentences still make sense.
She was sure she would be late.
He noticed people were staring.
As Part of a Noun Clause
A noun clause is similar to an appositive, but the structure is slightly different. Here’s an example.
The restaurant was out of the dessert that he wanted.
In this case, if you remove the word that, the sentence still makes sense.
The restaurant was out of the dessert he wanted.
The Easy Solution
By now, your head is probably spinning from trying to figure out all of these parts of speech, some of which you’ve never heard of. But there’s an easy way where you don’t have to think that hard.
Look at the sentence. Then eliminate the word that. Now ask yourself if the sentence still makes sense without the word. If it does, get rid of that. If it doesn’t, keep it in. It really is that simple.