Grammar Moses: Is it that that that was one too many?

  • Singer Peggy Lee, here posing for a portrait, memorably asked in a 1969 song, "Is That All There Is?" Grammar Moses could have told her that there are, in fact, other words, but "that" is quite a useful one.

    Singer Peggy Lee, here posing for a portrait, memorably asked in a 1969 song, "Is That All There Is?" Grammar Moses could have told her that there are, in fact, other words, but "that" is quite a useful one. AP File Photo/Nov. 19, 1984

 
 
Updated 4/17/2021 6:38 PM

There you have me repeating myself again.

Readers Mike and Gayle Politowicz feel (that) I am a serial abuser of "that."

 

That is to say the word "that," not this or that.

"Please help explain the word 'that,' which has me perplexed," they wrote. "It is an overused word and if removed, most of the time, it would not change the intent of the sentence."

They went on to explain (that) in a recent column -- about "because" -- I used "that" 17 times, and in eight of those cases it could have been eliminated without affecting the meaning of the sentence.

"The rest of the article could have used alternate words such as 'which,' 'it,' 'the,' or 'this,' for that matter," the Politowiczes wrote. "If the word 'because' is disappearing, let's do away with the redundant use of 'that' and we can all save some keystrokes."

I should note Mike and Gayle's criticism came wrapped in a compliment. I'm sure they appreciate I mentioned so and I eliminated three "thats" I ordinarily would have put in this paragraph.

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I readily admit I have a minor addiction to "that" in the way I have a problem with Ritz crackers. Sometimes I don't realize how many I'm using -- and I prefer not to think about it.

But I went through that column again and found just four instances in which I didn't need to use "that." There were a few in quotations I didn't edit out.

The greater issue here is Mike and Gayle's suggestion there are words one can use instead of "that" -- notably "which."

It's a lot more complicated than ... that.

I could give you the long, formal explanation of when to use which -- that being "that" or "which."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Instead, I'll keep it simple: Does your clause need to be offset by commas? If so, use "which." If it doesn't, use "that."

For example: "My car that has seating for six is great for family vacations."

This construction suggests I have more than one car and the one that has all of the seating is better for vacations. My experience with long driving vacations with two siblings is a school bus is probably too small.

Example: "My car, which has seating for six, is great for family vacations."

In this case, the construction suggests I have one car.

If you're a sentence parser, and you don't mind all of the labels cluttering your brain, the "that" example uses a restrictive clause and the "which" example uses a nonrestrictive clause.

"The" is the most popular word in English. "That," not surprisingly, is the ninth.

A bonus: If you believe English speakers are self-absorbed people, consider "you" is eighth, and "I" is 20th.

Comprise

I recently wrote about having to unlearn many of the things I was taught in school.

In fairness to my English teachers, it might have been they taught me correctly and the deficiency was all mine.

One thing I've always grappled with is the proper use of "comprise."

Hearing "is comprised of" puts my teeth on edge. The phrase is "is composed of."

So, how is "comprise" used?

Opinion Page Editor Jim Slusher did some research after I questioned his use of it in an editorial.

Gee, who do you think was wrong?

"In short, the whole comprises the parts, not the other way around," he said. "So, a slate comprises its candidates -- as long as you name all the candidates who make up the slate."

The website of ACES: The Society for Editing says "comprise" is closer in meaning to "contain" or "include," not "make up."

"Constitute" is often the word writers mean. AP's example is "Five men and seven women constitute the jury."

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at jbaumann@dailyherald.com. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim.

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