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"That" is my peeve

The Baltimore Sun

BuzzFeed turned up in Pittsburgh last week for the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society and asked thirty participants to voice their pet peeves.

I was happy to see a number of participants endorse singular they and split infinitives, but there was a fair amount of the usual trivial stuff that crops up.

Would of? Really? Unless we are hyper-correct and prissy in our enunciation, would of (“wood-uhv”) is what would have sounds like when we talk, and would of is the low-level mistake of an inexpert writer. I write would have, but I don’t expect a commendation when I do.

I digress. The two peeves that caught my eye were “Avoid using ‘THAT’ ” and “Stop trying to make ‘said that’ happen. It’s never going to happen.”

Those of you who were not afflicted with journalism school may find those prohibitions bizarre. And they are.

That can be safely omitted when it links two short clauses, as in the hypochondriac’s epitaph, “I told you I was sick.” But journalism teachers have attempted to universalize practice, omitting that or excising it when it occurs.*

Even the Associated Press Stylebook understands that that­-aversion is an oversimplification. Its entry:

“There are no hard-and-fast rules [!], but in general:

That usually may be omitted when a dependent clause immediately follows a form of the verb to say: The president said he had signed the bill.

That should be used when a time element intervenes between the verb and the dependent clause: The president said Monday that he had signed the bill.

That is usually necessary after some verbs. They include: advocate, assert, contend, declare, make clear, point out, propose and state.

That is required [!] before subordinate clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although, because, before, in addition to, until and while. …

“When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

Dammit, I find myself endorsing the AP Stylebook. Do you people see what you’ve made me do?

I would add that you should use that when two subordinate clauses are introduced. You should “make said that happen” in cases such as this: The president said that he had signed the bill and that enforcement of the act would begin immediately. The reader will not consciously notice the parallel construction, but it will smooth their path.

Bryan Garner writes, “The writers who ill-advisedly omit that seem deaf to their ambiguities and miscues.”

I have grown gray inserting the thats that reporters omit, and if God grants me the strength, I will go on.


*In the original post, I identified that as a relative pronoun. I have since received this correction from Brett Reynolds, for which I am grateful:

There's nothing relative or pronominal about this that though. It's what traditional grammar would call a conjunction and CGEL would call a subordinator. It's in something like the idea that I was sick, you have what traditionalists would call a relative pronoun (but CGEL would still call a subordinator).

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