That’s That

That’s That
Terry Odell

First, for those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving, this year presents special challenges. I wish all of you a safe and sensible holiday.

That's ThatAh, those overused words. Little ones. Almost invisible ones. Ones we take for granted. One of my critique partners pays her editors by the word, so getting rid of unnecessary words is high on her priority list.

One word that creeps into our prose is “that.” An obvious reason is that there are different ways it can be used (you’ll notice I used it in this sentence). That can be a pronoun, an adjective, an adverb, or a conjunction. It’s the pronoun usage that can cause problems (and there’s another that!). When I finished the first draft of one of my Mapleton novels, I found 902 instance of that. And yes, I did look at each one to see how it was used, and if it was needed. Here’s one example of a before and after:

The mayor interrupted. “I’ve assured Marianna that you will provide traffic and crowd control for any of her shooting. In return, she’s assured me that there will be as little disruption as possible to the normal, everyday routines of the citizens of our city.”

The way McKenna said city belied that Mapleton was hardly more than a small town. But one thing Gordon had learned was that regardless of the political head of the city, it was all about revenue. He imagined that some heavy-duty discussion of financial arrangements had already taken place, and that his life was about to become much more complicated.

Here’s the version after I went through zapping that:

The mayor interrupted. “I’ve assured Marianna you will provide traffic and crowd control for any of her shooting. In return, she’s assured me there will be as little disruption as possible to the normal, everyday routines of the citizens of our city.”

The way McKenna said city belied that Mapleton was hardly more than a small town. But one thing Gordon had learned was that regardless of the political head of the city, it was all about revenue. He imagined heavy-duty discussions of financial arrangements had already taken place, and his life was about to become much more complicated.

In my editing pass, I eliminated 4 of the 6 usages in those two paragraphs. Rule of thumb is to read the sentence with and without the that. Is the meaning as clear without it? Could I have deleted the remaining two? Maybe. My editor hasn’t seen this yet, and she might decide they can go as well. Or, maybe she’ll put some back. The rules here aren’t cut and dried.

Here’s another sentence where I kept the that.

We’ve found that locals are generally receptive to appearing as background characters, and property owners are well-compensated for any disruptions to their lives or livelihoods.”

When reading it without that, it’s easy to read it as finding locals, as if they were lost. When you read the rest of the sentence, you have to readjust your thinking, and you don’t want to slow a reader down.

Here’s another place where that helps clarify:

Gordon didn’t have the heart to tell Angie that Cassidy Clarke had little, if any, authority in deciding where scenes would be shot and who would be in them.

Without the that, it would read Gordon didn’t have the heart to tell Angie Cassidy, and with the names Angie and Cassidy Clark right next to each other, a reader might be confused and have to read the sentence twice.

The goal of an author is to keep the reader engaged in the story. Anything that pulls the reader away while they figure out what that sentence really means should be avoided.

But there’s another use of that I’ve seen lately that goes against everything I was taught in school, and I’ve been seeing it in books published by major publishing houses, and written by best-selling authors.

I was taught that for things and who for people. Now, admittedly, it can get tricky with nouns that don’t refer to specific people, but in my head, if that noun is made up of people, then you use who, not that. Examples: doctors, police officers, teachers, etc.

Here are a few examples from recent reads:

  • But maybe you’ve seen strange people around. You know, shady characters that might be involved.
  • I thought it was the girl’s father that was the real worry.
  • Older guys that we know.
  • Are you an author that has more than one book in a series?

And, what about this one?

I know rules can change, so I sent my editor a couple examples and asked her whether I was somehow behind the times.

Here’s what she said:

I’m not surprised that the books were published with “that” in the sentence. It’s becoming more and more common. A lot of authors don’t use “who” when they should. I think it may be partly because of today’s current English language and the way we talk today, and how authors write their stories. “That” is familiar. It’s a passive word and is overly used in most writing, so it’s a comfortable word. “Who” on the other hand is becoming a more formal choice, so it’s not used as often.

In 90% of the manuscripts I work on, “that” is used in similar examples in the original unedited version of the manuscripts. Is it the right thing to do? No, “who” is the correct choice. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective, I don’t think many readers notice the “that” versus “who” issues, so what happens is “that” becomes transparent within the manuscript in these types of examples whereas “who” sometimes stands out more in the sentence, making it less transparent and possibly “stopping” the reader in their read.

What’s your take? Does something like “John was a man that loved to fish” bother you? Do you even notice? Is this another gray area of grammar?

Heather's ChaseMy new Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is available at most e-book channels. and and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

34 thoughts on “That’s That

  1. Terry, I’m going to file your post today in the “what I wish I’d written” drawer. Not that I am entirely innocent — if I catch myself doing it once, I am probably missing four other instances — but seeing “that” used for “who” causes me to cringe, and worse. It’s cropping up all over, like a weed. I thought that I was the only one tha — I mean, who — it bothered. I don’t feel so alone now.

    One thing… in the quote from your editor, second paragraph…

    “…I don’t think many readers notice the ‘that’ verses ‘who’ issues…”

    Verses? Are we reciting poetry here? This, from an editor? Grammarly just choked when I pasted the quote in there. Ouch.

    Anyhoo…thanks for a terrific post, Terry. Have a Happy Thanksgiving. “Safe” and “sensible” are not words that people normally use in describing me, but I’ll try.

    • You know, because that section was written by my editor, I didn’t take the time to proof it. Just shows to go you that even editors make mistakes!

  2. I’m firmly in the *who* camp, Terry. Exception is in dialogue when that’s the way that character speaks.

    The one that confuses me is when to use *that* and when to use *which*. Or should I have said the one which confuses me? Have to grab Strunk and White every time.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and Hubster.

    • Thanks, Debbie. I almost always use ‘that’ and then delete most of them on my editing pass. I recall learning when to use that/which, but I don’t think about it when I write.

  3. My frown muscles engage when I read that where who should be. My preference is the same as you said…who for people (and sometimes dogs…they’re just people in fur coats, you know. And maybe crows, Sue) and that for non-organics.

    In fact, I recently completed a copy/line edit on a dissertation MS for a doctoral candidate, and one of the things I fixed for her over and over was who for that. (She didn’t realize how many times she’d made the mistake.)

    Thanks for bringing this up, Terry. IMHO, some things about language shouldn’t evolve, and this is one. The human race shouldn’t be a that.

    Another pet peeve laid to rest in my mind. 🙂

  4. Terry, great post.

    Number one for me (as your examples above) is clarity. Is “that” needed to keep the sentence clear. Number two (as Debbie mentioned) is dialogue. Is “that” the way a character would speak? And number three: Do we have a responsibility to provide a good example for our readers? Yes, we speak “that” way. And I’m certain social media plays a part in the “devolution” of the English language, but shouldn’t we seek to educate?

    Great post. Have a joyous Thanksgiving!

    • Thanks, Steve. I agree, dialogue has its own “rules”, and they’re established by the character who’s speaking.

  5. I’ve been bombarded by so much bad writing in recent years I’ve grown numb to simple errors like “that” being misused for “who.” Only the vocative comma and the loss of an Oxford comma for clarity annoy me.

    • I’m with you on the Oxford commas, Marilynn. But basic errors still yank me out of the story. Maybe I’m sensitized to the who/that issue because one of my writing buddies makes that error frequently, and we correct it.

  6. Terry, I’m guilty of over-using “that” in my writing, and edit with an eye toward reducing it. I really like your approach, and agree *that* distinguishing between usage in narrative vs. dialogue is helpful. Now, as to “that” being used in lieu of “who”, I hadn’t thought of *that* before, but agree with your editor *that* usage in common language has shifted to where “that” seems more transparent, while “who” reads as more formal. Now *that* I think of it, I’m guilty of doing exactly that (sigh).

    (Five uses of “that”, plus two as subjects in a single paragraph has to be close to a record. Left in my comment as an example of just how often I can use *that* word 🙂

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

    • Thanks, Dale, and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, too.
      “That” instead of “who” isn’t transparent for me! 😉 Makes me cringe every time.

  7. I’m also a “that” zapper, usually on first read-through. And a “who” user.
    Just checked my current WIP… still have 565 “that”s. Still more zapping to do! Thanks for the reminder.

    • I’m still in draft mode; 68K words, and I’ve got 560 usages of ‘that.’
      Culling would be a good project for days when the writing bogs down. Nothing like a boring task for motivation to move forward.

  8. This drives John McIntyre, the head of the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun for 40 years and author of the paper’s “You Don’t Say” column on grammar, bananas. From his Jan. 16, 2020, column, “‘Who’ for people AND ‘that’ for people, call the whole thing off”:

    Yes, I lost my temper.

    Coming across an innocuous Twitter poll on usage, I found people objecting to that as a relative pronoun with human antecedents as “wrong” and even “dehumanizing.” So I commented with a blunt “Objections to ‘that’ are stupid and uninformed.”

    A little later, I returned with a somewhat less rude “Look, every reputable grammarian, including Bryan Garner and all four editions of Fowler, makes it plain that ‘that’ can be used for human beings, and always has been in English. Insisting otherwise is misinformed, and insisting otherwise in the face of evidence is stupid.”

    And then, to the inevitable pushback: “It’s not just grammarians who accept ‘that’ as legitimately referring to human beings, but also speakers and writers of English for half a dozen centuries.”

    I was mistaken. That has been a relative pronoun in English referring to human beings for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary entry labels it “The ordinary use: referring to persons and things” and begins its citations in A.D. 825. In Modern English it cites the Wycliffe Bible of 1526: “The people that dwelte in darknessis.”

    End of excerpt. (And here’s the link for the whole thing, though it might be behind a paywall:

    This is a guy who regularly points out that English has no set rules. We’re not the French. English is a language that evolves with usage. McIntyre, a former president of the American Copy Editors Society, also delights in shooting down old shibboleths drilled into us in elementary school, like don’t end a sentence with a preposition and don’t use “they” as a personal pronoun. Or the “more/over” distinction foisted on me at my first newspaper job (by an editor who went to Harvard). McIntyre calls it a “dog whistle” distinction that only editors can hear.

    Don’t like “that” used to refer to people? Then don’t. But be careful about claiming it’s wrong or ungrammatical.

    • Thanks for all this information, Joe.
      However, I’m still a “who” for people person, and using “that” still grates. Our language changes (it’s not 1526 anymore), and most of the sources I found when I looked it up prefer “who” for people.
      CMS prefers “who” for people. Editorial sites also prefer it.

  9. Great subject, Terry. I struggled with the “that” thing for a long time. Still do. Someone, can’t remember who – might have been that Strunk guy, simplified it by saying not to use “that” unless the sentence just won’t read properly or make sense without it. As for “that vs who/which”, I was told to use “that” for non-humans and “who/which” for people. And dogs. Like the Debs said, dogs are people too. Except much smarter. Sorta approaching the crow league 🙂

    • Yes to the simple “read it both ways” test. I will say that my editor has often replaced a bunch I’ve cut, and then I have to look again. And again.

  10. I’m with you, Terry, boy howdy. There’s a successful indie writer of thrillers (who shall go unnamed and doesn’t post here) who peppers *and salts* the story with so many that’s that I’ve quit reading those books. I catch “that” in my everyday speech all too often when I should say “who.” It creeps into the writing of course.

    *That* is as big a peeve as my overuse of “was” in narrative description and action. I’m on the lookout for both as I write, because eliminating them forces me to be more specific and creative. As you point out, it also makes a more harmonious experience for first reader, the person with whom I isolate in place these days.

    • Kudos to you for being nice to your first reader! For whatever reason, anything that pulls a reader out of a story (or makes them abandon that author) should be considered when writing.
      Nobody will please everyone, and one reader’s pet peeve will be invisible to another. But we want to make our reads as seamless as possible.

  11. Yes! That instead of who bothers me. It especially bothers me when used for animals, where many writers use “it” rather than “he” or “she.” Since I consider animals as important as humans (maybe more so), calling them an “it” makes me cringe, even though it’s grammatically correct.

    Happy Thanksgiving, TKZers!

    • I always stop and think when referring to animals in my books. I saw where if the animal has a name, “who” is acceptable.

  12. This was a great post. As I’m writing, I make every effort to leave out each “that” as it sneaks in. Yet I almost always have to go back and double-check because there are usually a few that still need excising. Even after my novel was published I found one or two that should have been axed. Can’t win! But can try.

    • I’m impressed that you can tell when those “thats” are sneaking in. My fingers type words like ‘that’ and ‘just’ of their own volition, and I don’t catch them until I read it through (or do a search).
      Trying is the best we can do. And I think most authors would say they would liked to edit their books long after publication–they always find things that could be better.
      Of course, if you’re an indie author, you can make the changes.

  13. The fact that no specific example is popping up to me concerning my own writing means that the that/who controversy must not be one of my peeves. But now I will have to go look at some manuscript copy and search for instances to see where I fall. 😎

  14. Between this and yesterday’s perfect word, I was remembering having to “augment” a paper someone else wrote. His favorite phrase was, “and so much more.”

    Yep. My job was to find each so much more and fill in what it was. There were 108 instances of “and so much more.”

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