That That and Which Hunts

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Don’t gobblefunk around with words.” ~ Roald Dahl, The BFG

One of my most recent favorite reads was Love Does by Bob Goff. It was a fantastic book. I savored every line… so much so that I even read the acknowledgements, which were oddly placed at the back of the book rather than in the usual front matter. In the acknowledgements, Goff included a curious tribute to his friend and fellow author Donald Miller, “and to Don Miller, who taught me not to write thatinto my life…” In Goff’s entire book, it is the one sentence that puzzles me.

   Doing due diligence, I went to Miller’s writing blog to determine why he made such a rash statement about using the word that. In a writing tip, Miller suggests using that as if it were a curse word. He writes, ‘Instead of saying “I believe that we should…” try “I believe we should…” The word “that” makes the sentence weak. It loses some of it’s punch and makes the writer sound apologetic.’ 

   Ahem… perhaps some of my issue comes from an author offering a writing tip using the conjunction it’s rather than the correct its as possessive. But then, as we have already determined, I am a bona fide grammar ninja.

   Actually, using the word thatis not only acceptable, it is an absolutely necessary word. As an example, we must use that if it is a demonstrative adjective or pronoun, such as “I want that puppy.” That must also be used when a time element is linked to a verb, such as “She announced that March 15 would be her departure date.” Using that is especially necessary in formal writing to eliminate confusion.

   I admit there are times the word that can be deleted. The word is normally omitted if it directly follows a verb or precedes a simple relative clause. (Like in the first sentence of this paragraph, which could have easily included that after the verb admit.) The easiest way to determine if that is needed is to say the sentence out loud. If omitting that doesn’t change the meaning, you are free to delete it. Perhaps Miller is advocating omitting these instances of that. That certainly could be his case.

   Then we have the complex question of using that that in a sentence. It actually is grammatically correct if the first that introduces a clause and the second that refers to a specific thing, such as “I saw that that window was open.” A sentence of this sort, however, would be called a logic distractor. I would encourage you to rewrite that sentence if at all possible.

   We can get even deeper into the dilemma of using that. Let’s look at the famous sentence: “I know that that ‘that’ that that person used is correct.” This sentence also is grammatically correct. The first that begins an indirect statement, the second is a demonstrative pronoun, the third is the actual word that, the fourth is a relative pronoun, and the fifth is another demonstrative pronoun.

   I hope by now that you have come to understand that the good news is that using that is rarely wrong, albeit may be unnecessary.

    Just to muddle the waters further, that is often confused with the word whichWhich is another one of those quirky little words in the English language. Which is the nondefining, nonrestrictive alternative to using that. The rule is fairly simple: Use that unless the sentence needs a comma, then use which. In other words, if the clause is not necessary to the sentence, insert which. But if the clause is not necessary, we writers need to determine why it is included in our work in the first place. 

   Which brings us to which-hunts. It tickles me to read Strunk and White’s clever words on using which in their book Elements of Style. “The careful writer, watchful for small conveniences, goes which-hunting, removes the defining whiches, and by so doing improves his work.”

            I have probably bored you with yet another one of my pet grammar peeves. I apologize. I don’t believe, however, that going to grammar-aholics is going to help. Unfortunately, that’s a fact, which I fear is undeniable. And that’s that.