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I've never been sure what the problem with 'overusing' the word 'that' is. It seems to me [that] someone made the rule one day and everyone else followed it. The online source I was reading equates overusing 'that' with overusing 'like' in sentences in her earlier years. As far as I can tell, unlike the nonsensical 'like,' there are very few instances where the word 'that' has no grammatical function in a sentence.

In my opinion, using too few of the word is a worse problem than using too many of them. I would appreciate other opinions on this because I'm reviewing this manuscript where the writer is closely following this 'that-bursting' rule and it is frustrating because it is yielding sentences like:

John told him on their way to the park [that] James would be waiting there.

The greater tragedy was [that] the rescuers would later return without the girl.

Sometimes it even occasions too many commas (I guess because instinctively the writer knows there is something missing but they are afraid to admit it is the word they have kept out):

Having agreed with Peter[,] he would be in the office early the next day, he went on home to bed.

As opposed to:

Having agreed with Peter [that] he would be in the office early the next day, he went on home to bed.

Without doubt, no word or phrase should be overused in writing and writers should try to strike a good balance to where no word or phrase is sticking out in particular. But no word should be vilified if it is grammatically correct to use it.

Am I just being irreverent of the rule against 'that'?

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  • I'll leave a comment and not an answer as what I'll say is strictly an opinion. The sentence connected with a comma reads better than the sentence connected with "that". "That" sentence reads as a statement, while the comma makes the reader pause and subconsciously consider what the greater tragedy was. In my opinion, it's about the flow and tempo of the text and the sentence. On the topic of "that", I always followed the rule: "If a sentence reads fine without that, like, as, very, etc. Leave it out." – dorijan5484 Sep 25 '20 at 12:54
  • I can see how a comma would be more dramatic in that sentence, and I added that comma as an example. In the real places where the writer throws in commas in place of 'that' it isn't always the result. Maybe I should go and extract one of such sentences and update my question. – user191110 Sep 25 '20 at 13:12
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You are being irreverent but that does not mean you are wrong. Using the word "that" in every sentence becomes monotonous. The writer needs to develop writing (or editing) skills to avoid the problem in creative ways. If you are feeling helpful, point out the problem and offer a few suggestions. If an editor tells me my manuscript is good but do not use the word "that" I can solve this problem in a few seconds using a global replace to delete "that." Alternatively, I can rewrite the entire manuscript to avoid a specific word, but it will often become more verbose. The rescuers would later return, but they would do so without the girl. This was the greater tragedy to end an already bad day.

Would the text be good if "that" was restored to its proper place? Is this the natural way this author writes, or is the manuscript edited to this style? Is the quality of the manuscript such that it is worth your time to help the author? If help is the right answer, then focus on one or two paragraphs and work with the author to correct the problem in several ways. By seeing more options the author might then be able to rewrite the manuscript to find that balance.

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    TimothyEbert, I've already had this conversation. I gleaned from it that an editor told them this rule and so they went in and removed most of the word from the manuscript. I did take something away from your comment. I'll concentrate on helping them see how to rewrite the sentence rather than remove the 'offending' word and I will try not to insist they leave it in if it offends them. The trouble is, I think it only offends them because someone told them they should be offended. That's what is exasperating. Thanks for your answer, of course. – user191110 Sep 25 '20 at 13:41
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In Modern English Usage, Fowler notes three different categories regarding that as a conjunction (attaching a substantival clause to the verb or noun of which it is the object):

  1. Prefer that expressed

  2. Prefer that omitted

  3. Varies according to the tone of the context. An elevated tone would use that, a colloquial tone wouldn't.

Examples:

#1 With that: agree, announce, argue, assume, aver, calculate, conceive, contend, hold, indicate. learn, maintain, observe, reckon, remark, state, suggest.

#2 That omitted: believe, dare, say, presume, suppose, think.

#3 With that or omitted: be told, confess, consider, declare, grant, hear, know, perceive, propose, say, seen, understand.

Fowler says (that, #3) there is a tendency to omit that, perhaps due to U.S. influence. He was writing back in the 1920s, and the omission seems to have won out (largely due to guides from writers like Stephen King) The subtleties of "that" have been lost. Slash and burn.

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  • Yes, thanks, this is all understood. – user191110 Sep 26 '20 at 11:09
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It means that someone does not know grammar and prefers colloquial phrasing of sentences that are harder to parse accurately.

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  • You know, I asked someone to read both sentences for me and they kept stumbling over them. Then an interesting thing happened. After the second time, they read in a 'that' and were able to read it better. I then said to this person, 'You added something. What did you add?' It took them a fourth reading to identify they'd added 'that.' Quite unconsciously! – user191110 Sep 26 '20 at 11:07

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