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: 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.