“You have ‘that’ disease,” one of the first professional editors I’d met once told me. Back in the heady days of the 1990s when Autotune was a novelty Cher used only once, and everyone was going to get rich in big tech.
This came as a surprise to me. That? What was wrong with “that?”
Well, aside from being a crutch word, it raises a couple of red flags. First off, “that” serves mainly as a pronoun or a definite article.
“Look at that.” – Pronoun.
“That thing is strange.” – Article.
It goes into the weeds when it’s used in place of “which.” You might call it bad whichcraft. (And you might call that a really bad dad joke. You’d be right.) So, the wrong word gives us our first red flag. The second?
Even once you replace “that” with “which,” you now have to decide if that non-restrictive clause even belongs. For example…
“The Plymouth Fury, that Chrysler built in the 1950s, gave Christine a serious retro vibe on top of its obvious horror.”
OK, that’s not the best sentence I’ve ever written. It’s not even the best one in this post. But it gives us enough to work with. Our first red flag: I wrote “that” instead of “which” to offset the phrase “Chrysler built in the 1950s.” Already, I’ve used the wrong word. At least I used commas. The Chicago Manual of Style, not the only guide out there, but the Big Kahuna of style guides, is clear. Unrestrictive clauses begin with “which” and are offset by commas. So, I should have wrote “which Chrysler built in the 1950s.”
Or should I have?
I can see one of you now holding up your hand and squirming in your seat. Either you have to use the bathroom (Down the hall and on the left. Febreeze when you finish. Thank you.), or you want to know what the ever-lovin’ heck is an “unrestrictive clause?”
Unrestrictive is a nice way of saying “unnecessary.” More experienced editors than I will zap these clauses and say rude things in the comments. (And Ellen Campbell, if she senses you root for the wrong college football team, will say, “Roll Tide!”)* Does this clause add meaning to the sentence? Can it be removed? Let’s have a look-see. (And by the way, unless it’s dialog or first-person narrative, don’t use words like “look-see.” Seriously. I don’t know an editor who thinks that’s a good idea.)
“The Plymouth Fury gave Christine a serious retro vibe on top of its obvious horror.”
Yep. That clause is gone, baby, gone, and the sentence already looks better.
To the next person with their hand up: We have Coke Zero and iced tea in the fridge. Glasses are between the stove and the sink. Oh, you had a comment?
“But TS, what if I want to mention the Fury was a fifties model?”
Easy peasy. (Same as look-see. Leave it out of narrative. Dialog and first person only. Hmm… Next week’s blog post?)
You still don’t need the clause. If you saw the movie or read the book Christine, you know the titular car/monster was a 1958 Plymouth Fury with bad juju but a respectable taste for post-Elvis rockabilly. You still don’t need that “that” which should be “which.”
The 1958 Plymouth Fury gave Christine a serious retro vibe on top of its obvious horror.
There you go. Why use a lengthy phrase when a short-and-sweet adjective will do?
Now, you may ask yourself, “When I do I use ‘that’ to separate a phrase? I’ve seen in before.”
You may also find yourself behind the wheel of a big automobile. Probably a 1958 Fury. That’d be fun to drive. As long as it wasn’t possessed.
“That” is properly used for restrictive clauses. If the sentence loses meaning without the clause, you need “that.” You can see it in this minor act of plagiarism on my part:**
“Pizza that’s less than an inch deep just isn’t Chicago-style pizza.”
They are so passionate about that in Chicago they included my least favorite crutch work “just.” Different topic.
You might be able to get away with removing “that.” I omitted an obvious spot for it in my snarky comment about Chicagoans and their pizza. But the phrase itself cannot be removed.
“Pizza just isn’t Chicago-style pizza.”
Huh? What pizza? Brooklyn-style pizza? Actual pizza from Sicily or Tuscany? (Oh, don’t get an Italian started on that topic!) Why is that “just” still in the sentence?
As I said, you can probably lose the “that.” In fiction, I’m likely to ignore it. It’s the proper way to use it. That said, I still zap about 80% of “that” when used to offset a clause if it still reads well without the word. But the clause itself has to be there. What kind of pizza just isn’t Chicago-style pizza?
In editing, it’s hard sometimes to purge them all. One writer, who’s been at this longer than I’ve been alive (and my earliest memory is Armstrong coming down the ladder. Mind you, I was a toddler.), used every permutation of “that” in his manuscript. Did I get all of them or start replacing it with better words? Not completely. Keep in mind, it was my first gig with this publisher. Also, he was a guy I used to read frequently. At some point, I will have to become a cruel editor. I don’t care if you’re Neil Gaiman, that goddamned “just” is coming out!!! O-H!
(I almost said Jonathan Franzen. Somehow, I don’t think I could handle the stress. Gaiman, I’d probably be laughing too hard to catch everything. Gaiman is fun even if it’s his grocery list.)
Is this a case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” Boy, howdy!*** Name me a writer who doesn’t break their own editing rules. I don’t count Philip Roth because Roth used to rewrite every page until it was perfect. Also, writers are too close to their work to see all the errors, which is really horrific when I go back through the old TS Hottle manuscripts for reissue.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
*She’s wrong. The correct phrase is “O-H!”
**The article also goes into much more detail than I do. For starters, it lacks a poorly written Stephen King reference. O-H!
***Frank Zappa used to say “Boy, howdy!” So I can, too. You get a say in the matter when you write your own Joe’s Garage. O-H!