language corner

That’s that, part one

A word used too often, or not enough
May 22, 2012

“President Obama said Wednesday he would go to Europe.”

Is Wednesday the day he is going to Europe? Or the day he announced his travel plans?

A little word can make that sentence clearer: “that.” But its placement can make a difference, too: “President Obama said that on Wednesday he would go to Europe” means he is leaving for Europe on Wednesday. “President Obama said on Wednesday that he would go to Europe” means he announced on Wednesday that he was going at some unspecified date.

Many journalists are taught to excise most “thats” as unnecessary. But while some “thats” are indeed superfluous, some make a sentence clearer.

“That” has an awful lot of uses for such a small word. We’ll deal with one this week, and others next.

Style guides differ on whether to use “that” after verbs alluding to speech, where it acts as a conjunction. Garner’s Modern American Usage says “the conjunction that should usually be maintained to introduce clauses following verbs such as acknowledge, ask, believe, claim, doubt, and said, because without the conjunction what follows might be taken to be a noun complement.”

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The Associated Press Stylebook has a different take:

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 usually is necessary after some verbs. They include: advocate, assert, contend declare, estimate, make clear, point out,propose and state.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has an even better explanation:

After a verb like said, disclosed or announced, it is often possible to omit that for conciseness: He said he felt peaked. But if the words after said or any other verb can be mistaken for its direct object, the reader may be momentarily led down a false trail, and that must be retained: The mayor disclosed that her plan for the rhubarb festival would cost $3 million.

In other words, without “that” in the previous sentence, a reader might think, even momentarily, that the mayor had disclosed her plan, not that she had disclosed the cost of the plan.

When there is a time element following that verb, as in our opening sentence, “that” becomes more essential. Says the Times stylebook: “When a time element follows the verb, that is always needed to make quickly clear whether the time element applies to the material before or after it: The governor announced on Tuesday that he would organize a knackwurst fiesta.

If you find those “rules” hard to follow, read a sentence only two words past the verb “said,” “disclosed,” etc., and ask yourself what you think is coming next. If you find yourself confused, you need a “that.” Think of it as a separator between the act of speaking and what is being spoken about, or as the conjunction joining them.

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