When Does a Sentence Need ‘That’?

students_at_computerWe judge writing in part by how lean it is; proficient writers, bloggers, students — and ruthless editors — strive to convey a thought using the fewest words.

In my own writing and the editing I do for others, I sometimes pause when I come to that in a sentence: Is it necessary for clarity or flow? What are guidelines for the use of that?

There aren’t many! Writers can exercise discretion about when and how to use that.

Let’s start with some examples showing how the absence of that might cause a reader to pause and reread:

The problem:

He’s happy to know you found it helpful.

Might a reader pause after “He’s happy to know you …”?

The solution:

He’s happy to know that you found it helpful.


The problem:

I believe each book warrants reading.

Might a reader pause after “I believe each book …”?

The solution:

I believe that each book warrants reading.


The problem:

Most patients prefer their doctor decide on the best treatment.

Might a reader pause after “Most patients prefer their doctor …”?

The solution:

Most patients prefer that their doctor decide on the best treatment.


The problem:

She recommends you call your bank immediately.

Might a reader pause after “She recommends you …”?

Or might the reader think some punctuation is missing?

“She recommends you. Call your bank immediately.”

The solution:

She recommends that you call your bank immediately.


This example isn’t about pausing when reading; it requires that for understanding:


The problem:

I know you like my fiancé.

Which does it mean:

I know you as well as I know my fiancé.

I know that you are fond of my fiancé.

The solution:

I know that you like my fiancé.


The Associated Press confirms that there are no hard-and-fast rules in sentences structures such as these, but there are guidelines:

That usually may be omitted when a dependent clause (not a complete sentence) immediately follows a form of the verb to say:

The senator said he had voted for the bill.

Please don’t tell me you’re going to be late for the meeting.


That should be used when there is a time element between the verb and the dependent clause:

The senator said Monday that he had voted for the bill.

She told me last week that she would be late for the meeting.

That is useful when the point of a sentence comes late:

Lisa found the colorful lamp stuffed in a box at the back of her attic wasn’t a true Tiffany.

Lisa found that the colorful lamp stuffed in a box at the back of her attic wasn’t a true Tiffany.


That usually is necessary after some verbs:

advocate | assert | contend | declare | estimate | make clear | point out | propose | state

He asserted that he would support Medicare reform.

She made clear that she would not support Medicare reform.

They pointed out that we should expect budget overrides.


The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using that when it introduces a block quotation (a guideline that doesn’t have broad application in everyday writing):

Aristotle observes that

(Block quotation about Aristotle’s beliefs …)


CMS also recommends using that to introduce a quotation if it is only part of a sentence:

Aristotle believes that “those who are eminent in virtue usually do not stir up insurrections” might serve as a subject for debate.


I have not found this in grammar guides or blogs, but my observation and writing experience lead me to suggest using that after sensory or emotive words:

I feel that my recovery will be slower that expected.
He sees that his efforts were richly rewarded.
They heard that the pool will be closed at noon.
She’s afraid that her dog broke his chain and escaped.
I’m joyous that you can make the trip.
They’re relieved that the rain finally stopped.
She fears that his project will end by June.
He’s angry that the movie started late.

Other uses of thatthat versus which, for example, and that versus who or whom — could be good topics for future blogs. Let me know what you think.


Meanwhile, use care with that in your writing, whether it be an email, a blog, a report for work, a résumé, an essay for a class — anything that is produced under your name. Even the slightest confusion can give readers a reason to pause, which never reflects well on the writer.


As this Associated Press guideline about that succinctly reminds us:
“Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

Like it? Share it!

Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)