Such a little word – the word “that” – and such problems it causes. Everyone uses it, but very few use it correctly. Plus it is often a useless word added in to up the word count, but in actuality adding nothing at all to the sentence.
The first controversy with this little word is that vs. who. A little trick to remember: that is for animals or things. Who is for people. So when you say:
Wrong: I like the girl *that* I talked to last night.
Right: It should be: I like the girl *who* I talked to last night.
Right: I am taking the alien that I captured to Area 51.
Or that vs. which:
In this case, the word choice all depends on the use of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.
A nonrestrictive clause is one that is not essential to the sentence, but merely adds additional information.
Example: The third carton, which Tom put on the top shelf of the closet, is full of sports equipment.
In this case, the location is just added information. The carton isn’t any different from any other carton. It’s not important that we know this information. But, if we change one word and the punctuation:
The third carton that Tom put on the top shelf of the closet is full of sports equipment.
The location becomes essential to the sentence. We have to know that the carton he put specifically on the top shelf has the sports equipment in it. “That” is part of the restrictive clause and does not need the commas. “Which” is non-restrictive and must have commas separating the clause from the rest of the sentence.
Very often ‘that’ is used in a sentence when it is completely unnecessary or when another word would work better. Read your sentences containing the word “that” – if it can be removed without changing the sentence, do so.
Example: I looked at the clock and realized that I was going to be late.
I looked at the clock and realized I was going to be late.
By removing the “that”, we have changed nothing in the sentence.
Oops: I realized that I was going to be late for the meeting and that there was nothing I could do about it.
Better: I realized I was going to be late for the meeting and there was nothing I could do about it.
Oops: The Department of Revenue knows that no matter how careful you are about reporting your income on your tax return that mistakes happen.
Better: The Department of Revenue knows that no matter how careful you are about reporting your income on your tax return, mistakes happen. (Note – the first ‘that’ is retained for the sake of clarity).
Keep an eye out for the little word “that” and make it do its job correctly. 🙂