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Professional Writing Tip: The Painful Awkwardness of THAT Word

There are certain words in the English language that aren’t always necessary, whether you’re writing professional business articles or flash fiction.

“That” is definitely one of them.

Now, in the first sentence I wrote above, I used the very vocabulary choice I’m writing against. But I used it up there for a reason, and a good one at that: because the statement wouldn’t make sense without it.

“There are certain words in the English language aren’t always necessary” is clearly incomplete, and anyone who reads it is going to correctly assume that the writer screwed up.

However, there are so many other cases where “that” isn’t necessary; where it ends up doing nothing more than slowing down the copy. Here are just a few examples:

  • I told myself that it would be the latter.

  • There was nothing that she could do about it.

  • Jerry reached for the glass that someone had set out for him.

The sentences above are all grammatically correct. They’re prim and proper and get the point across.

However, those first two descriptors – prim and proper – are problematic. Consider this question: How many of us describe anything as being “prim” in a good way these days?

The adjective not only has stuffy connotations. Its very first actual definition, according to, is “formally precise or proper, as persons or behavior; stiffly neat.”

Again, “stiffly neat” is not a good thing. It’s stilted. Unnatural. Standoffish. As if the writer has a metal bar where her more flexible spine should be.

Is that the vibe you want to present to your readers?

Probably not.

Perhaps it came across as natural a few centuries ago, but it’s not a good fit anymore. That’s why, today, even our professional sentences should look more like this:

  • I told myself it would be the latter.

  • There was nothing she could do about it.

  • Jerry reached for the glass someone had set out for him.

All of a sudden, with just that one-word elimination, the copy lightens up. It comes across like an engaging conversation instead of a stodgy lecture – which then makes readers more receptive to your message, whatever it is.

The same basic principle can be applied to the word “of.”

Once again, we’re referring to a very useful word here. It’s necessary in so many sentences, such as “Grab that dish in front of you.” and “He wanted to ask any of the people around him for help.” and “The rest of her looked unassuming enough.”

Yet for all its amazing applications, “of” is still overused, such as in the sentence:

You’ll need to use all of your knowledge about fruits for this round.

Why is “of” in there except maybe to add one extra tick to the copy’s word count?

Without going into a boring lecture about parts of speech and when “of” is a preposition and when it’s not, I genuinely believe it’s safe to say the word isn’t necessary in the sentence above. You can tell because the statement still makes sense when you remove it:

You’ll need to use all your knowledge about fruits for this round.

Sometimes, adding an adverb or adjective or extra word can enhance the message you’re presenting to your audience. And sometimes, it has the exact opposite effect.

Oftentimes, it’s a matter of careful judgement and repeated readings to determine which is which.

But in the case of “that” and “of,” we writers can operate on a single simple premise: If the sentence can stand alone without them, take ‘em out.



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