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Omit Needless Words & Tighten Your Writing: Part II

 

Continuing my series on needless words and tighter writing, we have part II.  Feel free to review Part I here.  As ever, I suggest grabbing your manuscript and applying what you've learned while it's fresh in your mind.  Make it stick!

THAT and THERE:

That:

The word "that" has three functions. It's used as a demonstrative pronoun, to introduce a restrictive clause, and as a complimentizer.

A demonstrative pronoun acts as a noun or pronoun.  It is often acting as the subject.  You need these "thats."

Examples:

That won't let you down.  If fact, that will outlive the other.

Hey, I wrote that!

That he didn't try was the problem.

A restrictive clause limits or specifies the identity of the subject in some fashion.  You need the "thats" that introduce one of these clauses.

Examples:

The apple that didn't have mold fell to the ground.  (Not that apple but that apple.)

That car that sped across the grass, didn't you see it? (Not the car on the street, the one on the grass.)

Those are the ones that can stay.  So which ones go?  The "thats" that are meant to compliment.  The majority of them will be empty in purpose. 

Examples:

I felt that he was an untrustworthy man.

It was apparent that I was late.

I hope that this makes sense.

When was it that you were going to come over?

Sometimes, however, a complimentizer is needed for cadence or respite and you just can't let it go.  If you find one that could go but you're reluctant to delete it for some reason, say your sentence out loud to see if you're using it as a sort of pause.  If so, it should probably stay as a stylistic choice.   Just make sure the sentence really needs it!

There:

The word "there," as you know, refers to a place (concrete or abstract).  Most "theres" are okay and needed but oftentimes a sentence with "there" could be strengthened/tightened.  Particularly, I see a lot of writers use the word "there" to reemphasize location when it's not needed.

Examples:

There was nothing there.  Change to: Nothing was there.

She laid there on the bed and cried.

He leaned there on the locker, afraid to go to class. 

He came out of there and faced me.  (Either delete or use a concrete noun in a case like this.)

While you're examining your "theres" make sure you're using them in concrete ways.  Should it be "there"? or should you be giving "there" a name?  Do you even need to reference location again?

***

An example of tightening and revision using "there:"

My house was like a circus, loud and animated.  Then there was Grandma's house, such a quiet, peaceful place.  I loved visiting there.

Becomes:

My house was like a circus, loud and animated while Grandma's house was a quiet, peaceful place. I loved visiting.

My house was like a circus, loud and animated, but Grandma's house was quiet and peaceful.  I loved it. 

ETC.  There are many ways to rewrite it; the point is that I didn't need either "there" from the original sentence. Though, the first could stay if you wanted the emphasis and conversational tone.  I'd definitely launch the second.  Again, it comes down to examining what you want/need versus what came out when the words were flowing. 

***

So, for both That and There, I recommend hitting Crtl F, doing a search for each, and examining all your uses.  If you find an empty "that," delete!  If you find a "there" that (extra points if you can tell me what "that" I just used) makes location redundant, delete!

As before, please leave your examples, smarts, and thoughts in the comments (and correct me if I'm wrong on anything)!

17 comments:

  1. "Sometimes, however, a complimentizer is needed for cadence or respite and you just can't let it go. . . . If so, it should probably stay as a stylistic choice. Just make sure the sentence really needs it!"

    I love, love, love that you said this. The fact that, after giving the "rules," you admit that there are reasons for breaking them, is one of the many reasons that I come back to your blog again and again--because you give good, common sense advice, without mincing any words.

    Thank you, Casey, yet again!

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  2. Thanks Candy! I'm really not a stickler about writing "rules." I've broken many. With fiction, especially, there are always exceptions and leniencies. So even when I'm sharing tips and tricks that generally improve writing, I also encourage creative freedom.

    I think the key is making informed decisions!

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  3. you. read. ma. mind.

    I was just thinkning to myself, "I hope she does THAT soon."

    What I especially love about your lessons is how you give relatable examples and cater to different writers. Style is important, I am glad you recognize and encouareg...that. So, I've bookmarked your two lessons, are there more to come?

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  4. Yup, Jonathon, there will be a few more. No idea when they'll be up though. Maybe another on Monday. It depends on when I find time to write another out!

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  5. I find I can often eliminate extra "thats" from my writing, but I haven't had much problem with "theres".

    Interesting post. I never thought of how to classify the "thats". It makes sense that some language guru would have come up with definitions for the different types, though.

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  6. I have a huge issue with 'That'. Thanks you so much for posting this!

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  7. Casey--I figured out early in my writing journey that I had a that problem. :) I still write with them, but on my first revision it I target every that to see if it is needed or can be deleted. Most of them are deleted. :)

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  8. Excellent posts, both I and II. I especially like the "that" section.

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  9. Terrific post, Casey. "That" *nods head sagely* For each "that" I come across in my writing, I yank it out and see if the sentence reads as well. Nine times out of ten, it does!

    Now I need to move on to "there". I guess "there" is a bit like "it". Weak. Thanks for the advice!

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  10. Great advice, Casey. It took me a long time to learn this on my own.

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  11. ...excellent advice Casey. I've had several editors write me on this subject. I'm fairly certain squeezing too many "thats" into one's phrases is a common error many of us need to work on. Thanks!

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  12. Excellent post, as usual. :)

    Here's a thought on your example. You could make the flow easier if you changed the order of clauses.

    My house was a circus, loud and animated. That's why I loved visiting Grandma's house, such a quiet, peaceful place.

    This keeps the parallel structure of the sentences and eliminates the "theres". Also, I changed the circus from a simile to a metaphor for the strength.

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  13. Now *that* was a great post. I wish *there* were more time to read these great blogs. I could make a full time job of it.

    Thank you!

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  14. Great post. One of my early problem words was 'that' (along with which) and I still occasionally find myself misusing it as a complimentizer. And I didn't even know that was what it was called! Thanks.

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  15. Thanks everyone!

    Kyle, I love your revision. It's even stronger!

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  16. "That car that was speeding across the grass, didn't you see it? "
    Personally, I'd leave off "that was" in this example; it wouldn't lose anything important and IMHO would reflect how most people talk.

    I'm such a pill! I especially like your "that" section. I have a love/hate relationship with the word :)

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  17. I am definitely a 'that' user. Can't wait to start watching out for my overuse!

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