Jenny Lawson's first book, Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), collects
many favorite posts from theBloggess.com, her wildly popular blog about life in Texas and her taxidermic childhood. But let's not pretend her title doesn't bring up a wildly popular grammar topic, too: Namely, do we need a "that" with "this never happened"? Drat those thats--when do we need 'em? When don't we?
Lawson's (mostly true) memoir covers her childhood as the daughter of a dedicated taxidermist; a Texas life stuffed with stuffed dead animals, marriage at 22, a beloved daughter, work in HR, and the trials and tribulations thereof. Her blog is widely read, and her twitter feed, @theBloggess has 235,545 followers. She's a funny lady, who points out the things we wish never happened are often what define us.
Lawson works mainly online, and it was a question online that sent me down this week's path. A managing editor in the adult division at a large New York publishing house asked this question:
"When writing . . . do you tend to include or omit the 'that' introducing a noun clause, as in 'I thought that Claudia would be the first to arrive,' 'I believe that Camille was the first of her family to attend college,' and the like?"
The responses were fascinating. Many came from professional editors and writers, people in the industry, but some came from everyday folks who are interested in good writing. More than a few agreed that if one can read a sentence aloud without the "that" and it makes sense, drop the "that". Others pointed out sentences can be misread without it: Sentences such as "Claudia believes Jane is a bomb-throwing anarchist" need the "that". Yet others pointed out the existence of linguistic "that-trace effects" and other subtleties.
We love the linguistics but in the meantime, just what exactly is "that" in the cases above? "That" is a pronoun.
It can be a demonstrative determiner (like an article), occuring before a noun to indicate which of several items is being referred to: "that one, not the other one, silly," or a demonstrative pronoun: "I want that (not this)," and so on.
"That" can also be a relative pronoun (although some grammarians disagree). A relative pronoun works like a subordinating conjuction; it links a noun clause to another clause. But it's not like a conjunction because the relative pronoun stands in place of a noun. The relative pronoun fucntions like a noun as a subject or object in a noun clause that modifies another noun:
1) "She bought the green bag because the one that she wanted was too expensive" (which one was too expensive? the one she wanted)
2) "She wanted the handbag that fell off the back of the truck" (which handbag? the one that fell off).
"That" is the object of the clause "wanted" in the first sentence. "She wanted that."
In the second sentence, "the handbag" is the object of "wanted" in the first clause, and "that" is the subject of "fell off" in the second clause. "That" takes the place of the word "handbag" as the subject of the next clause. They are the same item, of course; a single handbag is being discussed. It is both wanted by her and it fell off the back of the truck. We wouldn't say "She wanted the handbag fell off the back of the truck"; we need the relative pronoun there to relate the two clauses, one in which the bag is the subject, the other in which the same bag is the object.
But we would say "She bought the green bag because the one she wanted was too expensive."
And I'd say that for most purposes, the advice to read a sentence aloud and see if it makes sense without the "that" is the advice that works.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.