I Overuse Some Words

Lately I’ve been editing a short story and submitting it to my critique group. I also critique the work my fellow writers send me. In the process of editing my own words while also looking at other peoples’ writing, I have noticed I totally overuse the word “that.”

The funny thing is I always notice when other people overuse “that” but I have to do a search for it (actually use the search function on my word processing program) to see where I have used it unnecessarily.

I recently looked up when it’s appropriate to use “that.” It wasn’t easy to find in my grammar books (I have quite a few, although I seem to have misplaced my Strunk and White. I bet it’s in there.) but I found it online by checking out the Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty.

She talks about “that” vs. “which,” which is not really my problem. But it’s useful information, so here it is:

“That” is used at the beginning of a restrictive clause. A restrictive clause is a clause that changes the meaning of the sentence. Here’s an example:

All writers that want to improve their craft occasionally look up rules of grammar.

If we take out the restrictive clause: that want to improve their craft, we are left with the following sentence: All writers occasionally look up rules of grammar. I disagree with this sentence but I agree with the original sentence with its restrictive clause.

“Which” is used before a nonrestrictive clause, which doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. Here’s an example:

“Which” is used before a nonrestrictive clause, which doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

In this sentence, the clause following the first statement does not change the meaning of the sentence. It just defines one of the words used in the first part of the sentence.

So now I’m clear on when to use that vs. which. But I’m still overusing “that.”

Going over when to use that vs. which was helpful because it helped me recognize what I’m doing in my writing: I’m using a lot of restrictive clauses. Which is fine. The problem is I use “that” at the beginning of too many of them.

Just because I’m using a restrictive clause doesn’t mean I need to use the word “that” to introduce it. For example:

The days of rain and snow bring with them the chance to stay cozy by the fire.

As I rewrite my short story, I see many more possibilities for getting creative with my restrictive clauses—and nonrestrictive clauses. It turns out I overuse “which” as much as “that,” a flaw I will correct as I edit my story.

Do you have any grammar blind spots that trip you up over and over? I’d love to hear how you manage them!

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: is a writer, blogger, life coach, physician, mother and stepmother. Right now I feel like I’m writing around the edges of my life, in the nooks and crannies, but I’m getting some writing done almost every day, so I’m okay with it. One day soon I’ll have more time to write and I’ll miss all the hustle and bustle I’m living through right now. It’s all good.

42 thoughts on “I Overuse Some Words

  1. Oh good gravy, I have the same issue with “that.” If I’m doing any Serious Writing, my first edit is always a search for the word “that.” Invariably, I wind up removing at least half of them. I wish I had the discipline to anticipate this flaw, but my coping mechanism works well enough.

    • Hi WTF Pancakes,
      I agree! I just search for the “that’s” and delete them when I edit. I’m hoping to use fewer of them the more I write!

      Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting!

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  2. That’s something I do all of the time. Ooops, what I mean to say is that I also overuse “that”. Darn, did it again. Seeing the difference between “which” and “that” is helpful since I’m sure I occasionally mix them up. I’ve been trying to post a new short story every week so I’ve skimped on editing. Doing a search for troublesome words like “that” is a good idea. It doesn’t take long and can help improve the flow.

    • Hi trentpmcd,
      Thanks for reading and commenting! Wow, posting a new short story every week–that’s amazing!

      I search for “that” and now “which.” It never takes very long, because I can usually just delete the extraneous “that,” although sometimes I do rewrite the whole sentence.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  3. Great advice! I have been collecting ‘grammar nits’ for an eventual post.

    And now I have to check my own writing and see if I’ve been over using “that” (although it is one of the grammar faux pas I’ve known about).

    • Hi Sammy D.,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Everyone has their own grammar blind spot, I think. It’s great to keep a list of potential problems for when you are editing.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  4. “That” was my personal sin word for a long time. Most of the time I could delete it without changing the meaning of my sentence at all. “That, just, and very” should be searched once the manuscript is finished. I consciously allow these words in dialogue, though.

    Now I’ve moved on to “though” as my sin word.

    • Hi coldhandboyack,
      I like your list! Once I read it, I know I’d have to add the word “actually” to my list of words to search for.

      I agree, allowing these words in dialogue can give your dialogue more authenticity. I can think of a number of people who use all these words in conversation very often–even me!

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi milliethom,
      Thanks so much for commenting. I think we all need to watch out for this one!

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi mjjameson,
      I agree. I search for the word and then decide whether it stays or goes. Usually, but not always, it goes.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  5. Oh my…I consistently overuse ‘that’. I also have an affinity for the dot dot dot… 😉 I’d love to hear more about the writing groups that you are involved in. I have rediscovered a love for writing, and writing publicly. I love being a part of this community.

    • Hi meridethcohrs,
      Thanks for your comments. As I said above, I think we all have our own grammar blind spots! It’s good to recognize them (or have them pointed out to you!) and search for them as we learn to use them less frequently.

      I’ve written a couple of blog posts about finding a critique group or starting one, and I’ve written about my current critique group. If you search the blog, you can find them. (I don’t know how to link to them in the comments section, sorry!)

      I’m so glad you are a part of this community! I really appreciate the comments.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  6. That is really helpful, and clarifies a lot for me. Thank you for sharing! I always tend to mix up the “i before e” rule when writing ‘their.’ Obviously, I have the wonders of the computer to auto-correct, but when it comes to hand writing, I can never seem to figure it out. The same goes for the spelling of “restaurant.”

    • Hi Shannon,
      I have always had a problem spelling Tuesday. To this day, I have to think about it–does the e go before the u, or vice versa? I think we all have those issues. I’m just glad when I realize I have a problem with a certain word, because then I can search for it in my writing.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  7. A word of caution. I have known about my addiction to “that” for many years and as I result I now avoid using it, even on first drafts and stream-of-consciousness writings. The result? I now UNDER use it! I’ve had people comment upon it. “This is unclear. You need a “that” in the sentence.” Word is constantly informing me to add a that. Oy. Ya just can’t win. 🙂

    • Hi Laura L.,
      That’s so funny!

      It never occurred to me that I could under use “that!”

      How do you search for the under use of a word? Maybe I better keep overusing “that!”

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  8. I think that “that” is also my most overused word. For example, how I just used “that” in my previous sentence. It’s completely unnecessary. Somehow, we’ve jumbled its use around, perhaps in informal speech? Thanks for the idea of doing a search for a single word in Word before submitting. Genius! My husband also thinks I use too many one word sentences.

    • Hi koehlerjoni,
      Thanks for your comments. The search function is definitely a writer’s friend!

      And I think one word sentences are great in dialogue, or in more informal writing, like blog posts.

      Do you think you use too many one word sentences?

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  9. One of my beta readers for my memoir pointed out my over (over!) use of “that.” She told me to try not using THAT unless it was followed by a noun. Seems to have helped!

  10. “That” made me smile when it came up on my reader…reminded me of the photos everyone posts with their doggies wearing a sign around their neck detailing their shameful behavior 🙂

  11. Hi Dianne. Scrivener has an awful little button I can push which tells me how often I use words. I’m always amazed at how often I use pronouns. I just went and looked. In a recent nano fiction piece, 100 words allowed, I used pronouns sixteen times. I wonder if, on larger pieces, I’m being clear enough about what she did to which him. Ha Silent

    • Hi Silent,
      That’s a cool little tool. I don’t have Scrivener, but I’ve always wanted to check it out. I think if I had that tool, I’d be horrified at how many times I use the word “that.”

      But it’s good to know, then you can change it (if you want to.)

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  12. Pingback: WAS THAT Really What you Wanted to Say? Being Aware of Unnecessary Words | Miss Adventures

  13. For myself, virtually any piece of paper I touch, instantly becomes a magnet for the word, “actually”. It is so bad that if I were to come across the perfect place to use that word, and I had somehow managed not to use it in the last million words that I had written, I would still cringe when I spotted it while re-reading the passage. Lol.

    • Well as someone who lacks any real education. I would like to add, the term educating yourself stupid, for I like to read and pick up on the authors voice at the same time, if, that is….a piece in a journal or a news item, where picking up on the nuances is as important (to me) as anything else.
      As I’m sure right away, everyone can know immediately, that I’m not as Englishly educated as others on this board, but I know this might grate on most of you, sorry for that, so to you dbp49, actually ,I would not worry about it too much, as it is you’ and actually not that important. Hope I’m took in the way I’ve meant it, best Alex

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