Monday, December 28, 2009

That... That... That Thing

Presently, the American written word is plagued with "That-itis." Well, it is plagued with many things, but the overuse of the indefinite pronoun "that" is overwhelming. With THAT said, I confess, in my casual writing, I abuse and use "that" quite often. But such a confession does not forgive me of my crimes. :) To atone for the abuses, I attempt to remove or avoid using "that" in my fiction writing. Okay, I'm not atoning, I'm simply trying to avoid over usage.

Having taught at a university, I was always dealing with students plopping down "this and that" here and there in their papers. I'm certain most any teacher who has encountered writing has seen this as well. What's alarming is how rapidly the guard has been dropped in the fiction world. Over the last few years, I've read several books by various publishers, all of which were overstocked with "that."

So what's the big deal about that? Probably nothing. Most likely, I'm a curmudgeon who is overreacting. Although, if you're a writer, try re-writing a sentence without "that." I bet you'll find your style varies, and the sentences flourish with other words. Yes, sometimes "that" can be a prose killer. It's easy to use, easy to spell, and it comes naturallyto us. All of those are warning signs. Take the difficult path with your sentence.  Or start counting "that" in writing - just to see how often it is used or overused. And of course, sometimes we simply need to use "that." After all, that is why "that" was invented. :)


Rick said...

That is undoubtedly the best advice that I've read in all the time that I've been reading and yes I knew you were expecting that I would write this on the topic of "that."

Voland said...

Personally I really don't like using the word "that", either as pronoun or conjunction, and will go a long way to avoid it. I think not using it results in a much smoother word-flow, as well as a loss of clarity which can sometimes be very beneficial.

My personal all-time bugbear is "that that", as in "I thought that that moment was ideal to learn to write better" ;-)

Curmudgeonly? I'm with ya, boss! :-D

Steve Buchheit said...

It's also like the verbal "um." Once it bothers you, and a speaker commences to um their way across the the meeting, you stop listening to what they're actually saying and start counting the "um"s.

Charles Gramlich said...

How interesting you'd post on this. I used search last night to go through my anthology and find every instance of "that." I took many of them out, but found I had to use some. I find myself overusing that word a lot in the past, although I think I'm better now. Not all better but somewhat better.

William Jones said...

Rick - Yes, I did. :)

Voland - "... had had..." used to be quite common. The ultimate in past tense. :) Perfect past, actually. I too have see "that that" and wondered how such a thing can exist.

Steve - I think you're dead on with that one. I'm one who listens to my own "ums" and then I get tangled up in them. :) I pleased I don't get "that" mixed in with the "um."

Charles - Looks like a synchronicity.

Daniel said...

I've been working on cutting out "that" in my writing lately as well :)

I'm certainly more aware of how/when I'm using "that" as of late.

Vesper said...

Now I have to go and count my "that"s !

:-) :-) :-)

Anonymous said...

Agree, I started taking out "that" whenever I could & found it usually made for a smoother read. Although there is the related matter of "which," too many people using it when they should preferably write "that"... I think... Glad I don't teach English.

MKeaton said...

I have a much bigger problem with "had" than with "that" (I blame too much scientific nonfiction writing and its love of the passive voice). As for "that", we could always switch over and use "wossname".


Anonymous said...

Upon further contemplation, I've returned to this post because, after rereading some older novels, I wonder if our pechant to overuse "that" is related to the fact that its companion word "which" has been almost completely banned from use. Is it possible that, since we are making a word do double duty, the over-use is inevitable?