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And That's the Way It Is

Rob Kyff on

Carol Szymanski of Cranbury, N.J., recently wrote to ask whether the word "that" was needed in these two sentences:

"If you can't remember that daylight saving time ends soon, you may forget to turn your clocks back."

"Mary needs to go back to the store because she forgot that she needed to buy cat food."

My answer: yes and no.

"That" IS needed in the first sentence because, without it, the clause "If you can't remember daylight saving time" might trigger a miscue by momentarily leading readers to think they're being told to remember daylight saving time itself, not that it ends soon.

But in the second sentence, the "that" can be dropped because even without it, the meaning of the sentence remains clear.

When it comes to "that," we writers, like the imperiled sailor Odysseus, must carefully navigate the narrow channel between the dreaded monsters Scylla and Charybdis.

Scylla is the danger of cluttering our prose with "that." Consider this "that"-laden sentence: "The great fear that haunted Americans was that they might lose jobs that they relied on to sustain the families that they cherished."

This sentence could be rendered "that"-less without any loss of meaning: "The great fear haunting workers was losing the jobs they relied on to sustain the families they cherished."

Charybdis is the danger is misleading our readers by omitting a needed "that," e.g., "Americans feared their bosses might lay them off." Without a "that" before "their bosses," the reader might momentarily think that workers feared the bosses themselves, which is something quite different from fearing being laid off.

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