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Link Your Ideas

Stack of books that say "Plain Language Book Club"

“Don’t shorten sentences by leaving out words such as that, which or who.”

Plain Language: Clear and Simple, page 23

It’s very popular advice to go through your text and delete the word that. You’ll hear that advice from writing bloggers and get prompted to apply it by auto-editing software. Shorter sentences are better for readers, right?

Here’s why that advice is too simple.

If your sentence is a street…

You’re driving down a smooth, freshly paved road, thinking about your destination and what you plan to do when you get there.

But then you come to an intersection that is under construction. The surface pavement has been chiseled away into rough ridges. You slow down. You feel a jolt as your car jolt drops off the edge into the rough area, and then another bump back onto the paved road. You can continue your journey, but now you’re thinking about the road.

Deleting that every time it appears in a text may give your reader a bumpier ride through your sentences.

Conjunction junction, what’s your function?

That is a word that can do different jobs depending on the sentence. This section of Plain Language calls these words “linking words” that help us “link ideas.” Like an intersection that joins two or more streets, that, which, or who can tell us that two different parts of a sentence are related.

Some linguists also think that the words that, which, and who may be acting like conjunctions. And and but are some other familiar conjunctions. These words are important for linking ideas, and you wouldn’t go through a text and delete all of them!

Let’s go back to our street scene. Your readers are driving down an easy street, that flows along as expected, from subject to verb to object, “I like movies…”

But then there’s that intersection joining us to a new street.   

  • “I like movies that make you think.”
  • “I like that we can talk about real stuff.”

That is the normal intersection with smooth pavement before you enter the next street.

When that is missing, things can get bumpy. Sentences that take us on a journey over two or more streets can be a little complicated. Now we’re looking at multiple verbs right next to each other, and possibly a new subject.

Imagine you’re in your high school French class, and your teacher asks you to translate a sentence with multiple verbs and subjects. That’s harder than a subject-verb-object sentence, right? The word that gives us this clue about how we’re joining all these parts to work together inside a tricky sentence.

Still want to know which pronouns can be removed?

Plain language guides — and there are several that agree on this point — are not saying every sentence is impossible to understand without that, which, or who. Instead, they’re prompting us to notice when we’re asking readers to work harder than necessary. It often works out better for our communication goals if we make things easy for the reader.

It’s true, though, that in some sentences, you could leave that out and be clear. If you know English very well, you may have an instinct for when it’s optional.

The important takeaways:

  • There are some sentences which are less clear without linking words, so searching and deleting that does more harm than good.
  • Even when a word is optional, it can still help the reader navigate your text. These navigation clues help them stay focused on your ideas.

If you really want to eliminate the pronouns that aren’t strictly needed, dig into the grammar to learn more about that, which and who. You’ll want to study relative pronouns and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses.

Plain Language Book Club is professional development in clear writing for editors and writers. You can read about what we are learning here at the blog, or hop into a discussion of a plain language resource at our next event.

Leave a comment!

I was inclined to agree with the plain language guidance on this topic, so this time I did a little reading to make sure I understand how these words work. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just sharing my preferences! But since this piece of writing advice is so common, I’d love to hear how you work with edits related to this topic, and how you think about it.

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