By Heidi Stevens, Tribune Newspapers
February 20, 2013
We were going to spend today discussing sequestration, a word springing from the lips of politicians left and right and begging to be more clearly defined.
Then we read Time columnist Joel Stein's explanation, upon which it's impossible to improve: "The situation in which the federal budget will be different if something doesn't something before something."
Which leaves us room to discuss a word springing from the lips of actual people, much to the dismay of other actual people.
The word is "that." For all its banality, "that," has an impressive ability to irk folks.
"My pet peeve is 'that,'" writes Words Work reader Gene Keefe. "'The judge felt that it took too long.' 'The hearing officer ruled that it was too far away.' 'I heard that you are too tall to shoot pool.'"
"Where you have a verb and 'that' after it," Keefe contends, "it makes the sentence longer without any change."
It's a complaint we hear with some regularity, often from readers lamenting an undisciplined wordiness creeping into much of our discourse.
But 'that' has its share of vocal defenders.
Jay Heinrichs, author of "Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever" (Three Rivers Press) and one of our favorite language dudes, calls himself "a that guy."
"'That' does make a sentence longer by an entire, often annoying, syllable," Heinrichs says. "But it serves to pin down the object of a sentence.
"Our unraveling grammar needs all the pins it can get."
Bonnie Trenga, author of "The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing" (Writer's Digest Books), wrote a grammar.quickanddirtytips.com blog post titled "When to leave out 'that.'"
Her conclusion? Sometimes.
"Some people think adding 'that' improves the flow of the sentence and makes it easier for the reader to understand," Trenga writes. "Others believe they should delete every seemingly unnecessary 'that' because they want to maintain an economy of words.
"I'm all for cutting unnecessary words," she writes. But I often like to keep my 'that' if it helps the rhythm of the sentence. You'll have to judge whether using 'that' in your particular sentence improves or hurts its flow."
Trenga agitates for 'that' inclusion in the case of "garden path sentences," linguist Steven Pinker's term for sentences that appear to be going in one direction but wind up in another.
"Aardvark maintains Squiggly's yard is too big," Trenga offers as an example.
"Without a 'that,' the reader is initially led to believe that Aardvark maintains, as in mows, Squiggly's yard," she writes. "If you add in a 'that,' it's clear from the beginning that Aardvark just has an opinion: Aardvark maintains that Squiggly's yard is too big."
You could turn to the grammar big guns on this one, but they hardly put the issue to rest.
The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's style guide by which many writers swear, lists as its seventeenth principle of composition: Omit needless words.
In each of Mr. Keefe's sentences, "that" does appear to be pretty needless.
The Associated Press Style Book, on the other hand, argues for keeping the word in your toolbox:
"There are no hard-and-fast rules, but in general:
•That usually may be omitted when a dependent clause immediately follows a form of the verb to say: The president said he had signed the bill.
•That should be used when a time element intervenes between the verb and the dependent clause: The president said Monday that he had signed the bill.
•That usually is necessary after some verbs. They include: advocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose and state.
•That is required before subordinate clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although, because, before, in addition to, until and while: Haldeman said that after he learned of Nixon's intention to resign, he sought pardons for all connected with Watergate.
"When in doubt, include that," AP says. "Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does."
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