Tag Archives: proper use of that and which

#amwriting: don’t gut your novel

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

This post has nothing to do with swords, but I felt one should be pictured, so here is Excalibur.

I have another novel in the editing process, one with many sections written before I embarked on my quest to discover how to write. I am now culling many unnecessary words and awkward phrases from the older sections.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know the word “that” is like a keyboard tic for me. I use it a lot in my personal speech, and it falls into my work with a little too much regularity. I thought I had them pretty well under control, but one doesn’t see one’s own work with eyes of the disinterested reader.

Because of this, my editor and I are now combing each section for words I can eliminate and still retain the flow of the narrative.

Yes, I know I claim to be an editor. But I am first and foremost a writer, so I do have an editor because an unbiased eye is critical to producing a good, tight, manuscript.

When it comes to eliminating the word “that,” it’s crucial you look at each instance of how it is used.  Sometimes, “that” is the only word for a given situation. If a particular idea can’t be conveyed any other way, for the love of Tolstoy, use it. Don’t gut your prose just because some online guru tells you ‘that’ is the devil. If you remove every instance of “that” you’ll end up with a mess on your hands.

And just so you know, “that” and “which” are not interchangeable so you can’t just change every instance of “that” to “which.”

“That” is a pronoun used to identify a specific person or thing observed by the speaker, a determiner, an adverb, and a conjunction.

  1. “That’s his dog on the curb.” (Identifier)
  2. “Look at that red car.” (Determiner)
  3. “I wouldn’t go that far.” (Adverb)
  4. “She claimed that she was married.” (Conjunction)

In the case of number 4, the sentence would be stronger without it. Most of the time, prose is made stronger when the word “that” is simply cut and not replaced with anything. I say most, but not all of the time. Use common sense and if a beta reader runs amok in your manuscript telling you ax “this and that,” examine each instance of what has their undies in a twist and try to see why they are pointing it out.

There are cases where only “that” will suffice. When do we use the word “that?” We use it when we have something called a ‘Restrictive Clause’:

Quote from Grammar Girl, “A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence.”  She goes on to give a specific example of a restrictive clause: “Gems that sparkle often elicit forgiveness.”  See?  Not just any gems elicit forgiveness in this sentence. Only gems that sparkle bring about clemency. In this sentence, forgiveness is restricted to one kind of gem.

“Which” is a pronoun asking for information. It specifies one or more people (or things) from a particular set, and it is also a determiner:

  1. “Which are the best diapers for newborns?” (Pronoun)
  2. “I’m looking at a house which is for sale on Black Lake.” (Determiner)

Go lightly with “which” and “that” but use them when they are required.

keep clam and proofreadThe same common sense approach goes for “very.” I seldom need to use it, but I do when it’s required. However, some people employ it too frequently, and it’s rarely needed in the context they  place it, fluffing up the word count. As with every word, there are times when it’s the only one that will convey an idea crucial to your story.

Mark Twain had a perfect comment regarding overusing “very.”

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

I’d love to be that editor.

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#amwriting: wrangling that, which, and semicolons

em dash memeSemicolons are misused morsels of punctuation. Some authors believe they are extra-long pauses: half-way between a comma and a (full stop)period. These bits of typographical madness litter their work.

Semicolons  are NOT extra-firm pauses. Em dashes or (if you are British) hyphens serve that function. Semicolons have a different place in the universe. For this post, we are going to look at semicolons as joiners.

The proper use of a semicolon is to join two short sentences that are directly related to each other, turning them into a compound sentence.

No one enjoys reading a choppy narrative. Too many short sentences can be distracting and hard to get into. The way we smooth the narrative is to join short sentences into longer, compound sentences. But frequently, that creates run-on sentences. (I am the queen of those.)

  1. Short and choppy: I’d love some ice-cream. We should go to the Dairy Queen.
  2. Compound sentence: I’d love some ice-cream; we should go to the Dairy Queen.

Comma Splice MemeYou do not join independent clauses with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuum: the Dreaded Comma Splice.

  1. WRONG: It’s nearly half past five, we can’t reach town before dark.
  2. BETTER: It’s nearly half past five; we can’t reach town before dark.

The two clauses that are joined together with a semicolon should relate to each other. The above sentences work because the lateness of the day means they might have to travel after dark.

  1. WRONG: We should go to the Dairy Queen; it’s nearly half past five.
  2. BETTER: We should go to the Dairy Queen. It’s nearly half past five.

If time is actually the issue in the above sentence, and you absolutely MUST use a semicolon or you will explode, say, “The Dairy Queen is about to close; it’s nearly half past five.”

I generally try to find alternatives to semicolons, but I don’t dislike them, as some editors do. I think they are too easily abused and misused, so I encourage myself and my authors to think outside the semicolon.

Another sticky area for the some authors are the words ‘that’ and ‘which.’ They are often difficult for new authors to get the hang of. They are not interchangeable, and overuse of the word ‘that’ cannot be cured by using ‘which’ instead.

‘That’ is a pronoun:

  1. Used to identify a specific person or thing observed by the speaker.

“That’s his dog on the curb.”

  1. Referring to a specific thing previously mentioned, known, or understood.

“That’s a good idea.”

‘That’ is also a determiner:

  1. Used to identify a specific person or thing observed or heard by the speaker.

“Look at that house fire.”

  1. Referring to a specific thing previously mentioned, known, or understood.

“He lived in Tacoma at that time.”

‘That’ is also an adverb

  1. Indicating to such a degree; so.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

And ‘that’ is a conjunction:

  1. Introducing a subordinate clause expressing a statement or hypothesis.

“She claimed that she was married.”

‘That’ can also be a literary conjunction expressing a wish or regret:

“Oh, that I had known this before.”

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‘Which’ is a pronoun:

  1. asking for information specifying one or more people or things from a definite set.

“Which are the best diapers for newborns?”

Which’ is a determiner:

  1. used referring to something previously mentioned when introducing a clause giving further information.

“A house on Black Lake, which is for sale.”

Some people will rather forcefully say you must never use the word ‘that,’ but those people are clearly unaware of the larger grammatical picture—do not listen to them.

Sigh.

So, when do we use the word ‘that’ in an appropriate and defensible fashion?  After all, too many ‘that’s’ make the prose boring and forgettable.

So does Grammar Girl, (Mignon Fogarty) on her awesome website for writers with questions. This website is an invaluable resource for folks like me, with some education, but no memory of what we were actually taught.

that which does not kill meThere are instances where only ‘that’ will suffice. When do we use the word that?

We use it when we have something called a ‘Restrictive Clause’:

Quote from Grammar Girl, “A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence.”  She goes on to give a specific example of a restrictive clause: “Gems that sparkle often elicit forgiveness.”  See?  Not just any gems elicit forgiveness in this sentence. Only gems that sparkle bring about clemency. In this sentences, forgiveness is restricted to one kind of gem.

So, now we know about restrictive clauses, but what about nonrestrictive clauses? Again we turn to the Grammar Girl and she says, “A nonrestrictive clause is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information.”

Again the Grammar Girl gives the example, “Diamonds, which are expensive, often elicit forgiveness.”  The word ‘which’ isn’t really necessary, as the meaning of the sentence would not be changed if you left it out. “Diamonds are expensive, but often elicit forgiveness.”

stop don't click replace allOften the sentence is better without the words ‘that’ or ‘which,’ but each instance must be examined individually, to ensure you are making the best choice.

This is yet another time when making a global search for these words is a good idea. (And never choose ‘replace all’.) On an individual basis, decide which word is the correct word, ‘that’ or ‘which’ and then decide whether to delete it or keep it. If the sentence makes good sense without it, lose it.

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