Grammar lesson: When should you use the word “that”?

One of my loyal readers sent me a question about the use of the word “that”; she said, “I am used to seeing the word ‘that ’ in all instances shown below” and provided four examples. Here’s one:

COPAS guidelines require that the initial billing of joint account charges occurs within a 24-month period.

Her boss had removed the word “that” from all the examples, saying:

 “. . . please be aware the word “that” seldom adds value and can be a major distraction. I have made adjustments both in the attached file and in life. My college English professor told me if I didn’t stop using it, I would get an F. I quit using it and I got a C.”

I told her that I could not support her boss’s deletion. I cited a comprehensive article in Technical Communication, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication.

Based on John Kohl’s argument, here’s what happens to the sentence without the word “that”: the sentence structure places “the initial billing of joint account charges” in the direct object position, but the phrase is actually the subject of an embedded relative clause: “that the initial billing of joint account charges occurs within a 24-month period.”

I see this error all the time in my students’ papers (each of the following sentences would be easier and faster to process if the word “that” introduced the relative clause):

  • Part 11 requires audit trails be secure.
  • Demonstrate the Offset Differential at machine 2 is not value-added.
  • We will ensure clinical practice guidelines are easily accessible to all Providers online.

“But,” my students argue, “you’re adding a word to my sentence!” Of course I am, and of course, I can usually remove another five words from their sentence with careful tightening.

I always recommend using the word “that” after these verbs:

•    believe that
•    confirm that
•    ensure that
•    found that
•    indicate that
•    learned that
•    make sure that
•    reveals that
•    shows that
•    stated that
•    understand that

As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and pushback at efrick@textdoctor.com.

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John R. Kohl, Improving Translatability and Readability with Syntactic Cues, Technical Communication, Vol. 46, No. 2, May 1999, pp. 149-166.

4 Responses to Grammar lesson: When should you use the word “that”?

  1. I totally agree. The word “that” is extremely helpful in signaling that a relative clause follows. Its omission is one of my pet peeves. Thanks for bringing up the topic.

  2. Actually, you are partly correct. “Billing” is the subject of the relative and is singular. However, “occurs” is the singular form of the verb. I also vote to include the “that.”

  3. My husband and I have been tossing back and forth when to throw “that” out, and when to keep “that” in. I appreciate the list!

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