The “THAT” Police

So, when did editors/readers/critics decide to declare war on the word “that?”

Seriously. I keep hearing this over and over again from folks–even from one college professor who declared that he would eliminate the word “that” from the language entirely. Well, good luck with that, mate! Let me know if you succeed in doing that.

I read an opinion from a book reviewer who stated that “the use of the word ‘that‘ is evidence of poor writing.” I asked myself…what’s wrong with “that?”

I use the word all the time when I am speaking. For example, I’m disinclined to say “He knew she was right.” Rather, I will always say “He knew that she was right.” Guess what? That’s not incorrect. The former, in fact, might be considered lazy. It’s fine in dialogue, but (in my opinion) it’s not fine in narration. I won’t fault a writer for leaving it out, but it feels like a shortcut to me. I don’t speak that way, and I don’t write that way.

Perhaps my speech is stilted…I don’t know. My writing has sometimes been labeled as such; characters are sometimes accused of being “too well-spoken.” Point taken–except that I write high fantasy. If I were writing in a contemporary setting, I would at least attempt to use more contemporary speech (alas).

My peers have been making fun of my somewhat extensive vocabulary since I was seven years old. The fact is that I was raised by an English professor who practiced a very meticulous manner of speaking…it couldn’t help but rub off on me. Well, fortunately, most people speak well in Alterra. I still remember my dad correcting me.(No, no, Chris…the reason is THAT, not because…) I couldn’t argue with that.

I know, I know…I shouldn’t worry about it. I should simply write in my own voice and brace myself for the inevitable response of the “that police.” (All right, Ma’am…we’ve had a complaint. You’ve been accused of excessive thatage and stilted narration. Come along quietly, now…)

Your Honor, I plead not guilty by reason of sanity.

As with everything else, I believe that this is the “things-writers-should-never-do-obsession-of-the-week.” We’ve heard some of the others, such as to NEVER use an adverb (seriously!) and that passive voice has absolutely no place in modern fiction–nor does omniscient narration. Someone should tell that to Stephen King (who uses adverbs frequently to great effect) and to some of the great storytellers, such as Tolkien, who loved the use of omniscient POV. Now I’m told I should not use “that” (see what I did there?). Oh, yes…innocent parentheses have also been banned. I like serial (Oxford) commas, and I use them. So sue me.

Every writer has a unique voice–a complex of flavors and spices that are like no other. As long as one knows the rules, it’s okay to bend them–even break them–in the interest of style. I’ll use adverbs when the phrase calls for them, and narrate when I need narration. As far as the word “that” goes, I will use it when I deem it appropriate, and I will leave it out when I believe it to be detrimental. Readers then have the option of hating it and calling it stilted. But I won’t “write lazy.” Fair enough?

Your Honor, may I plead guilty to a lesser charge?

  1. If only the Word Police could keep up with their own laws. THAT would be something!

  2. Great humorous spin on this topic! The other issue I hear often is in the use of contractions. With regard to high/epic fantasy, I prefer a more formal use of speech, but some people find it difficult to read. Anyway, thank you for the laugh. I stumbled upon your site through BookBub and downloaded Elfhunter. Look forward to reading!

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