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Tuesday Thought: Where have all the that’s gone? 4

March 5, 2012

The three preceding posts have been on using (or not using) that as a conjunction to link a clause to a transitive verb, a linking verb, or a noun or gerund. Today’s is on using that to link a clause to an adjective, infinitive, or participle.

With adjectives

That can attach clauses to adjectives.

He is certain that the bill, on the floor for the first time, will pass today.

Here it’s usual, with the intervening phrases between the subject of the clause (the bill) and the verb (will pass). But it may be omitted and is indeed unusual in:

Be sure you’re on time.

Note again that a pronoun (you) and verb (‘re) follow the adjective sure.

With infinitives

That can also connect a clause to infinitives (which can be a noun, adjective, or adverb).

Consider this example from ‘The Moral Instinct,’ by Stephen Pinker in the New York Times Magazine.

This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault, as we see in the group that anointed itself as the Moral Majority.

The clause that morality itself is under assault is the object of the infinitive to lament. In such constructions most infinitives require that. Exceptions are some infinitives acting as nouns, again followed by a pronoun and verb.

To know you are accepted is enough.

For such infinitives follow the convention for the equivalent transitive verb.

With participles

Last, consider connecting a clause to a participle (adjective), preceded by some form of to be (such as is, was, will be, has been):

He is thinking that you should do it.

Here that could be used or omitted. But better still would be to switch to the present tense (thinks) and follow the conventions for using that with a transitive verb:

He thinks you should do it.

Recall that using that after think is unusual, especially when the subject of the clause is a pronoun (you) followed by its verb (should).

This post completes the use of that as a conjunction. But I do plan to update it with more examples.


Thursday Tip: Starting sentences with and’s, but’s, or or’s

March 1, 2012

The last few Tips showed you how to play with series and the conjunctions that link their elements. This week’s talks about starting a sentence with and, but, or or. For those of you aghast at flouting the dictates of your seventh-grade English teacher, it’s time to overcome that fear and at least consider this addition to your style.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction was common in 1776 (see Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations). It was also common in the early 1950s. Just look at any high school text from that era (trust me). It’s now back in vogue. Consider this example from The Economist‘s ‘Desperate Measures‘:

The deepening gloom about the economy may well warrant such an aggressive response. But the timing is puzzling. There is more than a whiff of panic about slashing rates little more than a week before a scheduled meeting.

The opening but preserves the link between the first two sentences–and emphasizes the change of direction. It’s more effective than the alternatives: combining the parts into a compound sentence joined by a comma (not enough punch), eliminating the but and keeping two independent sentences (the logic is lost), or joining the parts with however, placed at the beginning of the second sentence or in the middle (again, not enough punch).

The opening and has much the same effect. Here’s an example from Michael Grynbaum’s ‘Stocks Surge‘ in the New York Times:

The volatility on Wall Street came with the market at a 15-month low. And it followed another steep sell-off in European stock markets, which were disappointed after the head of the European Central Bank dampened investors’ hopes that the bank would follow the Fed’s lead in cutting interest rates.

As a single sentence, this could have been a blur, especially with the length of the sentence. The opening and makes the parts easier to grasp.

A nice rhetorical flourish is to combine an opening and and a but. Consider The Economist‘s Israel and Gaza: Scrapping for Power‘:

Since Hamas took over Gaza, Israel’s only hope is that its talks on a Palestinian state with Hamas’s rival, Fatah, which controls the West Bank, will eventually give Gaza’s residents the impetus to rise up and, if not overthrow Hamas, at least put pressure on it to make concessions. But the more Gaza suffers, the harder it is for Fatah’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to carry on those talks. And if, in the oft-discussed nightmare scenario, a Qassam hits a busy Israeli school playground, Israel’s politicians may well feel they have no choice but to launch a retribution that risks destroying the peace process.

With all the commas and clauses, this passage could be a slog for readers. The opening but and and signal the logic and flow.

But remember our standard disclaimer: use these flourishes too often and you’ll annoy your readers.

Tuesday Thought: Where have all the that’s gone? 3

February 28, 2012

Today’s post is on using or omitting that when connecting a clause to a noun. Writers seem to use it when they’ve omitted it in another part of the same sentence–and to omit it when the connection is clear or when there are other that’s in the sentence.

Consider these sentences, from Roger Lowenstein’s ‘The Education of Ben Bernanke,’ in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

By the time [that] President Bush nominated him to run the Federal Reserve, at the end of 2005, Bernanke knew more about central banking than any economist alive.

So, no that after time. Note that time is followed by the clause’s subject and verb. Also note the t in time.

Later in the same piece:

None other than Alan Greenspan has said [that] that constellation of problems facing Bernanke is tougher than anything [that] he experienced in the 18 years that he held the job.

The that after years could have been omitted, but Lowenstein (or his editor) might have felt that to be excessive, because he had already omitted that after anything–and after said, where it should have been kept for clarity, instead switching the adjective that to the (‘said that the constellation of problems’).

In the rest of the piece most other sentences attaching clauses to nouns retained that:

…the clearest signal that the…

…more than twice the inflation rate that Bernanke has delineated as…(omit that?)

…general notion that the Fed has vast powers…

…an indication that the Fed has added liquidity…

…the dictum that inflation would lead to jobs…

…the fact that the Fed relies on…

…the committee members that I talked to…

…the idea that he could be replaced by a computer…

…the risk that the troubles in housing would leach into the general economy…
But not in this sentence:

…of the sort [that] he had so often written about…

No that after sort, with its final t and the pronoun he that follows.

What’s at play here beyond formal usage and caprice?

It’s not easy to identify anything more than the seeming conventions mentioned at the opening of this post. Here’s a first stab:

Generally use that to connect a clause to a noun:

  • When there are no other that’s in the sentence.
  • When a phrase interrupts the flow from the noun to the subject of the clause.
  • When a clause or string of phrases separates the subject of the clause and its verb.

Possibly omit that:

  • When there are other that’s in the sentence (or even when there are none).
  • When the preceding noun or the clause’s first word has a t.
  • When the subject of the clause is a pronoun followed by its verb.

Always omit that when what remains is clear and elegant.

(I’m compiling examples of each convention and will update this post when I have something useful for you.)

Consider this translation from Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:

That was the way [that] he always was alien to the existence of his sons….

Note that the translator omitted that between the way and he. Then, three sentences later:

It was in that way that the boys ended up learning that in the southern extremes of Africa there were men so intelligent and peaceful that their only pastime was to sit and think….

Here the translator used that between way and boys, even with two other that’s in the sentence. Perhaps it would have been omitted if the boys were a pronoun: they.

Learning that brings me to gerunds (verb forms acting as nouns). With the intervening prepositional phrases in the southern extremes of Africa, that cannot be omitted. With that phrase omitted or moved later, that could be omitted:

…the boys ended up learning [that] there were men so intelligent and peaceful….

Using that with clauses connected to gerunds appears to follow its use following the conventions for transitive verbs.

Usual Unusual Contextual

Know believe learn

Knowing believing learning

See our preliminary list for transitive verbs.

Thursday Tip: Paired conjunctions, and when not to use them

February 23, 2012

The last two Tips talked about using series and conjunctions to bring order to sentences and add flair. Today’s Tip shows how to inject some structure into pairs of roughly equal weight.

Paired conjunctions suggest parts of equal importance and require that those parts be of the same (or at least similar) construction. They often connote that it is somehow remarkable that the two parts are together. Common pairs: both/and; not only/but also; either/ or; neither/nor; just as/so.

An example from an article on education in India in Thursday’s New York Times:

An educated person would be not only more likely to find a good job, parents here reasoned, but also less likely to be cheated in a bad one.

A note of caution: some writers fall in love with this construction, every pair becoming not only A, but also B. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz is one who loves it. In his book Globalization and its Discontents, he uses not only on pages 4, 6, 8, 13, 16, 19, 20, 26, 29, 31, and so on. Reserve these uses for occasions when the emphasis is merited. Otherwise, just use and.

The passage above, for example, occurs just a few lines after this one:

Not only has the roaring economy run into a shortage of skilled labor, but also the nation’s many new roads, phones and television sets have fueled new ambitions for economic advancement among its people.

A more serious problem than the rapid-fire paired conjunctions is that the second passage isn’t parallel. To be parallel, the second clause would have to begin but it has. An easy fix is to use and. Doing so is not only simpler, but also less likely to have problems with parallelism.

Another example of a paired conjunction, from Paul Burka’s ‘United We Fall,’ also in Thursday’s Times:

Just as President Bush failed to unite Washington and instead ended up contributing to its divisiveness, so Mr. Obama will eventually have to accept that conflict, rather than unity, is the natural condition of politics.

Here, the paired conjunction helps the writer emphasize the similarities between Bush and Obama.

Note: where have all the so’s and also’s gone?

Only a few lines before the passage above, Burka writes:

Just as Mr. Bush’s message of compassionate conservatism appealed to many Democrats and independent-minded liberals, Mr. Obama’s politics of hope seems to disarm Republicans and rightward-leaning independents.

Why use so in the first instance and omit it in the second? It seems to come down to preference and the cadence in the writer’s ear.

Also widespread is using not only/but, omitting also. Here, however, there are distinct shades of meaning. Consider this passage from the Washington Post:

Along with the other films in this collection, it reminds us that Frankenheimer not only relished a great chase but made those chases so compelling that we were always willing to race right along with him.

According to Bernstein in The Careful Writer, we use not only/but also when one element is additional to the other. Here, not only means ‘partly,’ or ‘not exclusively.’ We use not only/but when one element completes the other, as in the passage on Frankenheimer or He is not only a painter but a very good one.

Tuesday Thought: Where have all the that’s gone? 2

February 21, 2012

Last Tuesday’s post was on that as a conjunction joining a clause to a verb–more specifically to a transitive verb, which demands an object. I began to identify when using that (rather than omitting it) is usual, unusual, or contextual.

Today I look at using that to join a clause to linking verbs (is, was, will be, and so on), to complement the sentence’s subject.

Here are two examples from ‘The Moral Instinct,’ by Stephen Pinker, in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal.

The convention seems to be to use that to connect the complement in all such instances.

(Note that Pinker omitted that between rules and it, but this missing that is a pronoun, not a conjunction. To distinguish the conjunction from the pronoun, see whether which could work in that‘s place. If it can, then that is a pronoun and can often be omitted. More in a few weeks on that as a pronoun.)

The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished.

Again, the first that connects the complement (people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished) to the linking verb is. Pinker could not omit it.

But what about the second that connecting its clause (those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished) as the object of the transitive verb feel? Its use is contextual, and in this context it would not be omitted because of the awkward and ambiguous people feel those and because of the clause (who commit immoral acts) separating the subject (those) from its verb (deserve).

Is using that with linking verbs invariable? Or are there instances when it could be omitted?

I’m looking for some of those instances. If you find one, please send it along.


Some linking verbs (seem, appear) can also be transitive, as in the example above. To distinguish the linking from the transitive, see whether is, are, or am could work in its place. If it can, then the verb is linking. If it can’t, the verb is transitive, so you would follow the conventions for that with such a verb.

Thursday Tip: Extra conjunctions, omitted conjunctions

February 16, 2012

The standard series form–A, B, and C–pops up everywhere writers need to talk about a set of similar things. A few examples from an article on carbon offsets from Wednesday’s New York Times:

Corporations and shoppers in the United States spent more than $54 million last year on carbon offset credits toward tree planting, wind farms, solar plants and other projects.

Back in 1998, the agency did not create definitions for phrases that are common now — like renewable energy, carbon offsets and sustainability.

Dell lets visitors to its site fill their shopping carts with carbon offsets for their printers, computer monitors and even for themselves.

But don’t let that familiar form blind you to other possibilities. More forceful and nuanced groupings are possible by adding an extra conjunction or omitting the conjunction.

Consider the next World Development Report from the World Bank:

The 2009 report is on density and distance and division–the three main geographical dimensions of economic development.

The extra conjunction emphasizes the combination of the three dimensions yet gives each its separate identity, making it more likely that readers will remember all three. Later mentions of the three would use the conventional form, with a single and. And because the three make up the full set, we would not omit the and–as in distance, density, division, which implies that the three are part of a larger set.

An extra conjunction can also distinguish pairings:

He can gush and despise, revel and sneer, as through a bifocal lens.

By contrast, dropping a conjunction can compress the series, showing that all three are concurrent. Take this example from the Golden Compass:

Lyra’s heart was thumping hard, because something in the bear’s presence made her feel close to coldness, danger, brutal power.

With shorter series that end a sentence, the final word can resonate without the and.

A note of caution: Don’t overuse these flourishes. You’ll annoy your readers.

Tuesday Thought: Where have all the that’s gone?

February 14, 2012

That is a wonderful word. It can be a noun, as in the preceding sentence, or it can be an adverb, adjective, conjunction, relative pronoun, substantive pronoun (more on these terms at the end). It’s so useful that it turns up in its many guises, and that is why writers try to omit it, often to excess.

As a conjunction, it can join a clause to a verb: I believe that many writers omit it, even when they should keep it.

But in many cases it can be omitted: I believe many writers omit it, even when they should keep it.

Because it is always correct to use it, the question is when to omit it.

Consider this, from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, in a piece on McDonald’s and Starbucks:

Internal documents from 2007 say the program, which also will add smoothies and bottled beverages, will add $1 billion to McDonald’s annual sales of $21.6 billion.

The writer omitted that after say. And later in the same piece:

Franchisers say that many of their customers donĂ¢’t know what a latte is.

Why omit that in the first sentence and use it in the second, when it could have been used in both or omitted in both? Not obvious. Using it in the first would have been correct but perhaps unnecessary, thanks to the following the–perhaps, because of the commenting clause following program. It would clearly be unnecessary without that clause: …say the program will add…. Not using that in the second sentence would also have been correct but infelicitous: say many.

Now consider this sentence, quoted by Evan Jenkins in the Columbia Journalism Review:

The Gore campaign believed the recount, which is continuing in two counties and pending in one, was flawed.

Without a that between believed and the recount, some readers will think the campaign believed the recount, until they get to the end of the sentence. They’ll think the object of believed is just the recount, not the entire clause. Again, the culprit is the commenting clause following recount.

So, when can that be left out? And when not? I’ve been trying to figure that out. It seems to turn on whether the verb appears to govern the entire clause or just the subject of the clause–and on how the verb and subject sound together, not separated by that. It can also turn on the length and complexity of the clause.

Omitting that also turns on whether the verb is followed by a pronoun and verb, as in:

I know you’re going to like this.

I find in my editing that I’m plugging that in where writers have left it out. But I’m also cutting it where writers have used it.

So, in the spirit of Modern English Usage, I’m compiling a list of verbs, using Fowler’s three categories, that can influence the use of that: when that is usual, when it is unusual, and when it may be used or omitted.

Usual. That is usual when attaching a clause to such verbs as announce, assume, hold, maintain, observe, and suggest.

Unusual. That can be unusual when attaching a clause to such verbs as believe, hope, presume, and think. But including it is grammatically correct and complete–and sometimes essential, as with The Gore campaign believed the recount.

Contextual. That seems to depend on context with such verbs as confess, consider, know, perceive, say, see, and understand. Again, using it or omitting it depends on how the verb and the next word sound together and whether the subject of the clause is misread as the entire object of the verb, which can happen when the clause has a commenting clause in it. See the two examples above with the verb say.

I’m also collecting examples of such usage.

Please send us any examples [that] you might come across in your reading, good or bad. I’ve created a Word document to get you started.


I said I’d write more about the terms at the beginning of this post.

That can be an adjective: I want that one.

An adverb: I don’t want it that much.

A conjunction: I see that you are happy.

A relative pronoun: This is the one that I want.

A substantive pronoun, equal to a noun: That is the one I want.