That-itis—Better Known as a Bad Case of That, That, and More That
Take a little test. Count how many times you used “that” in your completed manuscript. I had over five hundred in my last manuscript. My editor told me to delete four hundred. Yikes! I had a bad case of that-itis. I shouldn’t have more than one hundred.
So, when do you need to use “that” and when don’t you? “That” has different functions but only a couple are necessary in narrative writing.
As a determiner, “that” indicates an object far from the speaker or in the past.
It can easily be replaced with an article.
I want to buy that Moses figurine at the back.
I want to buy the Moses figurine at the back.
I bought that Moses figurine ten years ago.
I bought the Moses figurine ten years ago.
“That” can also be replaced by a noun or pronoun.
I don’t want that.
I don’t want the Moses figurine.
I don’t want it.
As a relative pronoun, “that” connects two clauses in one sentence.
“That” is used if the clause is necessary to the meaning of the sentence. “Which” is used if you refer to a thing and the information is extra. It is preceded by a comma. “Who” is used to refer to a person and is also preceded by a comma. When “that” is the object of the relative clause it introduces, it can be dropped.
Here are a few examples.
Prince Khalid invited the treasure hunters that he met during his digs.
Prince Khalid invited the treasure hunters he met during his digs
Mackenzie bought the double chocolate mousse cake that she saw at the bakery.
Mackenzie bought the double chocolate mousse cake she saw at the bakery.
Eoin wants to fly the jet that Prince Khalid recommended.
Eoin wants to fly the jet Prince Khalid recommended.
You can also rewrite the sentence to avoid “that” if it’s long and offers enough information to warrant two sentences. But this will increase your word count, which is usually a no-no. My recommendation: keep it as one.
Adiva bought the challah at Bubbie Bakes that is near Old City Jerusalem.
Adiva bought the challah at Bubbie Bakes. The bakery is near Old City Jerusalem.
Adiva bought the challah at Bubbie Bakes near Old City Jerusalem.
“That” can be used in a clause as an object of a verb but can be omitted if the meaning is clear.
Zahira hinted that she killed the Vatican Archaeological Service agents.
Zahira hinted she killed the Vatican Archaeological Service agents.
“That” is also used in a clause as a compliment to a noun or an adjective.
A compliment gives additional information about the noun or adjective and answers the question “why.” “That” can be omitted if the sentence is clear without it.
Prince Khalid is upset that his younger brother will inherit the oil fields.
Prince Khalid is upset his younger brother will inherit the oil fields.
“That” can introduce a phrase acting as the subject of a sentence.
It is common in formal writing, such as essays, but is used in narratives, such as mysteries. It can be avoided by rewriting the sentence.
The fact that Sara sent you her research should make you happy.
Sara sent you her research. This should make you happy.
After reporting verbs such as “said”, “told me”, “implied”, “reported”, “suggested”, and so on, “that” can be eliminated.
Sophie said that she was in a hurry.
Sophie said she was in a hurry.
“That” after adjectives, answering the question “why” can also be deleted.
I’m happy that you found Moses’ rod.
I’m happy you found Moses’ rod.
Lots of confusing grammar info about “that”?
You’ll probably never look at a “that” the same way again. It takes practice but that-itis is curable when you know the rules. One last tidbit. If you’re ever in doubt, even with the rules, say the sentence out loud with and without “that”. If the meaning is clear without “that” then you can safely eliminate it.
Moses & Mac by Franca Pelaccia
On her dismal 30th birthday, unassuming Victorian scholar Mackenzie Braden receives a mysterious package from her Aunt Sara, urging her to locate Moses’ rod. The most powerful weapon in history will start global chaos if it lands in the wrong hands. Sara was an agent for the top-secret Vatican Archaeological Service. She has also been dead for 30 years and the agency dormant for just as long. Mackenzie’s only clue is a souvenir figurine of Moses, and except for hunky ex-military pilot Eoin Reilly, her allies are as inept as she is.
But nothing is going to stop Mackenzie from recharging her lacklustre life, fulfilling her mission, finding answers about her aunt, and making Eoin her birthday present. Armed with the figurine, Mackenzie sets off with Eoin for the Middle East. There she has to fend off a Ph.D. candidate turned terrorist, a dysfunctional family of treasure hunters, a fake Mossad operative, a manic former VAS agent, the underground tunnels of the Gaza Strip, and a whole lot of rocket launchers. But this is training for the ultimate confrontation with her aunt’s and now her greatest foe, a charming deposed Saudi prince with world domination on his mind.