One of the very first things I was taught as an editor* was to watch for unnecessary uses of that and delete, delete, delete. At first it felt funny. I, myself, relied on that the way I, like, relied on like. So to extract the word from the works of others felt awkward and strange. I mean, we see this word everywhere.
To illustrate this, I’m going to pick on an amazing quote from an article I actually loved:
In truth, neither use of that helps in the sentence above. This is not a hard and fast rule of grammar here. The writer did nothing technically wrong by using it. It’s just that the sentence would be cleaner and more powerful if it weren’t bogged down with thats.
People are beginning to realize Jesus is so counter-cultural, he doesn’t fit into any political party.
Notice how in the first case it wasn’t needed at all and in the second case a comma did its job beautifully.
Sometimes a sentence doesn’t work without the that. One example is just a few lines above. See the sentence that began like this:
It’s just that the sentence would be cleaner …
You might try the sentence without it, and you might get away with it if you substitute a comma. However, in this case, the that definitely adds clarity. In that case (see what I did there) it is serving a useful purpose and can be left alone.
However, in writing this article I found it difficult to come up with other examples of that being necessary, because it’s so overused. For example:
Magazines that feature plus-size models are tough to find.
Seems right, doesn’t it? Because it won’t make sense without the that. Except that (woot! woot!) if you change the verb, it will and the sentence will be so much better:
Magazines featuring plus-size models are tough to find.
See what I mean? We rely on the word so much, it often escapes our notice (mine too!), but if you’re preparing something requiring perfection, do a word search for every that in your document. Put each one to the test.
Now go write well. (And good luck with that!)
*While I am frequently employed as a professional editor, I cannot afford one myself. I do what I can, but it’s much harder to proof your own writing. Because brain science. Please don’t judge me too harshly when I miss my errors.