Pulling Weeds

One of the most important exercises you can do with your writing is weeding out words that don't add value. In the final analysis, there are really a lot of words your sentences can do without, and there are ways to rearrange and compact sentence structure to maximize efficiency, and add punch. But even in everyday writing, there are a few words in particular that needn't be there in the first place. One word you see way too much is that. Although it's generally used to point to something, it has somehow crept into a variety of sentences where it does nothing but take up space.

I think that you are sadly mistaken.

It’s one more reason that I hate the rain.

Neither sentence is benefiting from the word that. It isn't pointing to anything, adding information, or otherwise serving any useful purpose.

I think you are sadly mistaken.

It’s one more reason I hate the rain.

As you can see, both sentences are perfectly clear and just as meaningful without that in there. Once you get in the habit of looking for it, you’ll see a lot of unnecessary instances of the word. The basic idea is to ask yourself whether you’re using that to point to something, or just using it out of habit. In the next two sentences, it's doing some actual pointing work.

How do you get this from that?

I believe that is the better solution.

This might be a good time to also mention the difference between that and which. You often see these two words used interchangeably, but they really shouldn't be. Which adds information about something you're already pointing to; that doesn't serve the same purpose.

That old car, which won't start, should be towed.

My favorite hat, which is red, might have been stolen.

Another common abuse of the word that is using it to point to people. Who would be a better choice.

My sister, that couldn't come tonight, extends her condolences.

I don’t get along with people that can’t sing the blues.

In both sentences, the word that should be replaced with who, since we're talking about people. It probably goes without saying that you wouldn't use who to refer to an inanimate object, but you'll have to make your own call when it comes to situations involving household pets, or for that matter, your favorite horse or other well-loved animal.

Another overused word is of. You see this one all the time, too, doing absolutely nothing of value.

It happens all of the time.

In this sentence, the word of isn't necessary and should be removed. On the other hand, you wouldn't want to nuke it if it is, in fact, doing something useful.

I'd like to buy 25% of your land.

In this case, the sentence would obviously be incomplete without of in there, helping describe what you're interested in purchasing.

As I mentioned in the beginning, there are quite a few words that can be eliminated from sentences; there are others I haven't included here. But this brief list will, I hope, be enough to trigger a closer examination of necessary words, versus those that simply take up space.


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