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Is That “That” Really All That Necessary?

Sometimes you need it, sometimes you don’t.

Ellen Jovin

Syntaxis workshop attendees often have questions about the word “that.” One common question is whether “that” can be omitted from certain sentences, as in:

She said he was a hard worker.

instead of

She said that he was a hard worker.

The answer is yes. If the meaning of a sentence without the “that” is unambiguous, and if you prefer the way the sentence sounds without it, delete away.

Here are several other acceptable sentences with an implied rather than explicit “that”:

Susan proved she could do it.
Mark and Barbara claimed they would be able to complete the project by 5:00 p.m.
The presentation they gave last night was fascinating.

In some cases, deleting an unnecessary “that” can help reduce repetition. You have probably encountered sentences with multiple instances of “that” in quick succession, as in:

He said that the report that Janet was writing would show that our costs had been spiraling out of control.

Instead of writing “that” three times in this (currently inelegant) sentence, delete a couple of unnecessary ones. Besides reducing repetition, the deletions will also make the sentence sound less convoluted:

He said the report Janet was writing would show that our costs had been spiraling out of control.

Don’t be reckless with the “that” deletions, though. In some cases, omitting “that” can create temporary confusion about a sentence’s structure and meaning. For example:

He believed John was a liar.

This sentence is not incorrect, but as you read the first three words, it might seem at first as though John is the direct object of the verb “believed” (as in “He believed John”). In business writing, where clarity is a top priority, it is often a good idea to preserve the “that” in sentences with this type of structural ambiguity. Although the structure in our example above will become clear as the reader continues past the name John, including the word “that” makes the writer’s meaning apparent right away:

He believed that John was a liar.

Below are a few other examples, structurally similar to the one above, where keeping the word “that” enhances clarity:

She saw that Marshall was struggling.

Including the “that” prevents the misreading “She saw Marshall.”

Jackie Chaney had expected that the verdict would be unfavorable to her client.

Keeping the “that” in that sentence prevents the misreading “Jackie Chaney had expected the verdict.”

First-quarter results suggested that a weak economy was having little effect on the company’s performance.

With the “that” in the sentence above, the reader will not temporarily and mistakenly think “First-quarter results suggested a weak economy."

This caveat about clarity should not be taken as grammar and style law. Out there in the world of business writing are plenty of good “that”-less sentences, structurally like the three examples above, that are sufficiently clear and that simply sound better without the “that.” Use your good judgment.