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Scholarly Voice: Uses of "That"

Uses of "That"

The overuse of any one word can be irritating to readers (not to mention boring). However, elimination is not necessarily the answer. In English, the word "that" has many uses. While the word "that" can sometimes be dropped to improve concision, other times it is critical to the syntax and meaning of a sentence. In addition, even when the word "that" is not necessary, it can sometimes be used to improve clarity and flow. Therefore, it is necessary for the writer to make purposeful stylistic decisions around the use of the word "that" to create clear and grammatically correct sentences.

"That" as a Pronoun or as a Demonstrative Adjective

When that is used as a pronoun or as a demonstrative adjective, it cannot be eliminated.

"That" as a pronoun:

  • Statistics have shown X. As convincing as that is, other data have shown Y.

"That" as a demonstrative adjective:

  • Researchers established an interview protocol. That process has now been tested.

"That" as a Conjunction in Noun Clauses

One important use of that is for embedding (inserting) a certain type of dependent clause called a noun clause into an independent clause. Frequently, such that-clauses serve as the direct object of a reporting verb (such as found, reported, posited, argued, claimed, maintained, and hypothesized) to introduce a paraphrase, summary, or quotation.

Key: Yellow, bold = subject; green, underline = verb; blue, italics = object

For example,

  • Smith (2015) reported that more research was necessary.
    • Smith (2015) = subject
    • reported = verb
    • that more research was necessary = dependent clause, direct object of the verb reported
  • The authors hypothesized that there would be significant results.
    • The authors = subject
    • hypothesized = verb
    • that there would be significant results = dependent clause, direct object of the verb hypothesized
  • Jones (2014) asserted that confidentiality was maintained throughout the study.
    • Jones (2014) = subject
    • asserted = verb
    • that confidentiality was maintained throughout the study = dependent clause, direct object of the verb asserted

Rephrasing these example sentences into questions and answers is one way to see that the that-clauses are acting as direct objects.

  • What did Smith (2015) report?
    • Answer: that more research was necessary
  • What did the authors hypothesize?
    • Answer: that there would be significant results
  • What did Jones (2014) assert?
    • Answer: that confidentiality was maintained throughout the study

In formal written English, for clarity, most academic writers choose to keep that when it introduces a noun clause (Caplan, 2012). Leaving out that can cause the reader to misread (at first anyway) the subject of the dependent clause as being the object of the reporting verb (Jamieson, 2012).

  • For example, if readers see the sentence, Smith (2015) reported more research was necessary (without that), they may understand “more research” as the thing Smith reported and then have to backtrack and reread upon seeing “was necessary.”
  • Any structure that leads to misinterpretation, even temporarily, can be an unwanted distraction from the writer’s message.
  • In spoken English, however, that may be dropped in such sentences. (Intonation patterns—rising and falling pitch—give the listener clues that may not be present in writing.)


Caplan, N. (2012). Grammar choices for graduate and professional writers. University of Michigan Press.

Jamieson, P. (2012). Use of that.

"That" in Restrictive Clauses

"That" (as well as "who" and "whose") is sometimes used in a restrictive clause. A restrictive clause restricts or defines the meaning of a noun or noun phrase and provides necessary information about the noun in the sentence.  It is not separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. Restrictive clauses are more common in writing than nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause is also sometimes referred to as an essential clause or phrase.

Here are a few examples:

  • The results that I obtained may invoke positive social change.
  • The participant who met me at the coffee shop asked a lot of questions.
  • The researcher whose article I read yesterday has won prizes for her work.

Reduced Relative Clauses

When the relative pronoun (that, which, who, whom, whose) functions as the object of the verb in the relative clause, it can be (and usually is) omitted. Although its use here is not strictly wrong, deleting it from the relative clause creates a more concise sentence.

Here are a few examples:

  • The results that I obtained may invoke positive social change.
  • The article that I requested did not arrive on time.
  • The participants who I interviewed met me at the local library.

Relative clauses can also be reduced to phrases to create more sentence variety. When reducing a relative clause, it is necessary to delete the relative pronoun and either delete or change the verb.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Gun control is a controversial issue that is about personal rights. (be + prepositional phrase)
  • The steps that were followed were explained in the Methods section. (passive voice)
  • Other researchers who are exploring the same topic have discovered similar solutions. (progressive verb tense)
  • Participants who were available to meet in my office completed their interview there. (be + adjective)
  • Some of the subjects lived in urban areas that had with high crime rates. (have as a main verb is replaced by with)
  • In this dissertation, I reviewed many research articles that addressed addressing the topic of gun control. (linking verbs or verbs describing facts can be changed to –ing phrases)
  • The changes that are to be implemented with the new curriculum revisions are outlined in the handout. (infinitive phrase—i.e., to + verb)