Last week we talked about the use of “that” after a verb of speech, like “said,” “acknowledged,” etc. This week, we’ll explain how “that” can signal where a sentence is heading.

Let’s start with this sentence:

“You’ll be happy to know the man …”

Most readers will think that the sentence concerns the relationship between “you” and “the man,” and the speaker’s assumption that “you” will be pleased to make the acquaintance of “the man.” But here’s the rest of the sentence:

“ … who needs to sign your form is back from lunch.

Now it’s clear that the point of the sentence is that the man is now back from lunch. It has little to do with the relationship between “you” and “the man,” except that “the man” is needed to sign the form.

A reader who discovers that the point is not what she first thought it was must recognize that, then back up, either mentally or by rereading the beginning of the sentence, and begin moving forward again. Any interruption in the reader’s forward motion through a sentence is an opportunity for the reader to stop reading. No writer wants that.

That little word “that” will solve the problem and keep the reader moving forward:

You’ll be happy to know that the man who needs to sign your form is back from lunch.

“That” informs the reader that what comes next is the point of the sentence. That would not be the case with this sentence:

You’ll be happy to know the man who needs to sign your form, because you have a lot in common.


Here the point is the relationship between “you” and “the man.”

So keep in mind where the sentence is going and head misdirection off at the pass.

If your sentence contains a second clause, then you might also need a second “that”.

Let’s extend our original sentence:

You’ll be happy to know that the man who needs to sign your form is back from lunch, and that the form is on his desk.

You need a second “that” before “the form” because it’s an extension of the thought “You’ll be happy to know …” You could take either “the form is on his desk” or “the man who needs to sign your form is back from lunch” and put it after “You’ll be happy to know that …” and the sentence will make sense. That’s called “parallel construction.”

You would not need a second “that” if the second clause is not directly related to the first thought in the sentence, as in this case:

You’ll be happy to know that the man who needs to sign your form is back from lunch, and then we can go to lunch..

You really wouldn’t say “You’ll be happy to know that then we can go to lunch.” It’s a separate and independent clause, not a parallel one, as it is with “You’ll be happy to know that the form is on his desk.”

“That” has many uses, and we’ve highlighted only two. But now that you know these “thats,” those uses should give you less trouble. And that’s the point.

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More in Language Corner

That’s that, part one

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More in Language Corner

That’s that, part one

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.