It’s true, you know. Remember the hidden object games we all played as kids (or maybe still do in the doctor’s waiting room)? You look and look. You turn the page upside-down or sideways, closer or farther, another twist, and suddenly a giant bunny’s nose morphs into the spoon you’d been searching for. Cross spoon off your list and start hunting down a pitchfork. Put the puzzle down for a few minutes or hours or days, come back to it, and the bunny’s nose is still a spoon. You can’t unsee it.
I recently read something about overused words, and I became obsessed with getting a particular one out of my sentences whenever possible. Now it seems to jump off book pages and my Kindle and my web browser. It’s everywhere. It makes me want to go back through my previous articles at The New Agenda at 2 AM and secretly delete or replace them. Like the bunny’s spoon nose, I can’t unsee it.
The word? That.
I know, I know. It’s a perfectly good word. It serves many very valuable purposes, and there are times a sentence simply won’t work without it. As a pronoun, it explains who or what a person, place, or idea (mentioned or implied) is. Ex: “No, puppy, that is my dark chocolate!” “That is my puppy in the picture.” “That is the cutest Yorkie I’ve ever seen!” It is used to refer to a particular kind of something. “That is a very naughty dog.” Merriam-Webster has other ways that is used as a noun, along with examples. That is also irreplaceable when used as an adjective, as in “Sit in that chair.” In these cases, there simply is no substitute, so please use that when you need to.
But there are other times when, although grammatically correct, you could probably leave it out.
If you look at Merriam-Webster’s definition as a conjunction, it can be used to introduce a noun clause, a subordinate clause, and an exclamatory clause. I’m going to be ridiculously honest: I love it for an exclamatory clause. Oh, that my dogs would stop barking when the doorbell rings sounds so much more emphatic and drama queen-ish than Gee, I wish my dogs would stop barking when the doorbell rings. The former sentence calls to my mind
my someone’s harried, one hand in the air, other forearm on the forehead plea for my her dogs to knock it off. The latter sounds like something uttered alongside a wistful sigh.
The noun and subordinate clauses are, I believe, where we start overusing it. Merriam-Webster offers the following examples of using that in those cases:
- it is unlikely that he’ll be in
- said that he was afraid
- we are certain that is true
- will go anywhere that he is invited.
I disagree with Merriam-Webster (Oh, the hubris!). I think 3 is an example of using that as a pronoun, since it seems to refer to an unspoken idea or statement. It really can’t be removed. If you remove that from examples 1, 2, and 4, the meaning of the phrase isn’t changed a single iota.
- it is unlikely he’ll be in
- said he was afraid
- we are certain is true (uh uh… no way)
- will go anywhere he is invited
Kind of de-clutters those phrases, doesn’t it? When you look for and remove words that aren’t really necessary, the other words you so carefully chose stand out, strengthening the meaning of what you’ve written.
Another use of the word is as an adverb. Just to recap, if a verb is the action in the sentence, the adverb tells how the action was done. If you now have lolly lolly lolly get your adverbs here stuck in your head, you have my deepest sympathies. Kudos to Schoolhouse Rock. Personally, adverbs send me back to Sesame Street… When you’re walking down the street, and a porcupine you meet, how do you shake his hand when he says “hi”? Carefully, carefully, careful, -ly.
Sorry for the digression. I take side trips now and then, and I’m not afraid to drag others along with me. Admit it, though… it was fun, wasn’t it?
Okay, back to business. When that is used as an adverb, it’s typically defined as “to such an extent”. In this case, there’s sometimes just no getting around it, and you need that. Grab a latté and settle in while I explain. The other night I found a ginormous spider in my shower. I was pretty sure Aragog from Harry Potter had come to get me Psycho-style, and I ran screaming like a 3-year-old and told my husband to get rid of it. I’m the world’s worst at gauging how big something is, I didn’t feel like hanging around to try and measure it, and I really wanted to get into a hot, safe, spider-free shower. My husband mumbled something about being a grown woman, so I held out my hands (about as far apart as a dinner plate) and said, “You don’t understand! It’s about that big around!” That works in this case.
When that means very or extremely, you may find you’re able to get away with a synonym. If you do, the meaning of your words could pack quite a punch. Consider these examples:
I covered my eyes for most of the movie. It was that scary.
I covered my eyes for most of the movie. It was intensely scary.
Okay, not the greatest sentences in the world, but you get the idea. Intensely scary may actually bring up emotions. That scary? Meh.
For me, the whole concept of overused words is kind of like, you know, like, back in, like, the 80s and everything? Like, when we, like, said, like, like all the time? And like, how like in the late 90s, like, the “upspeak“ phenomenon like happened, and like everything we said, like, sounded like questions? And how, like, the Kardashians are, like, totally, like, bringing it back? Blecch! Exaggerated, I know, but my point is, it’s an example of a very casual speaking register, which doesn’t always translate well in written work. The exception is quoted dialogue, and then all bets are off.
Please. Don’t spend more time trying to rearrange a sentence so you can ditch a single word. Leave it in there if it works for you. This is just a guideline for cleaning up your writing a touch, especially when it’s expository or persuasive. All writers have their own styles and their own sets of rules, especially for creative writing. James Thurber once said, “Don’t get it right, get it written.”
I promise you this much: from now on, you will not be able to unsee that.
I intentionally excluded the word that from this blog post, except where I was naming it. Check out the sentences where I wrote, “I disagree with Merriam-Webster (Oh, the hubris!). I think 3 is an example of using that as a pronoun, since it seems to refer to an unspoken idea or statement.” It is the only place where I forgot my mission and used that. Prior to editing, here’s what it said: “I would disagree with Merriam-Webster (Oh, the hubris!) that number 3 is an example of using that as a pronoun, since that is an unspoken idea or statement it refers to.” See the difference? Told ya… can’t unsee it, can you?