Hello, and welcome to the first installment of “Beats the Heck Out of
Me,” the column where you get to be the expert. The simple rules are
illustrated by the following exchange, which took place partly via
e-mail and partly in my mind:
I enjoyed your discussion of the which/that distinction in this
morning’s Daily Pilot. I’d like to see a follow-up column discussing
when to use “that” and when to omit it entirely, leaving it implicit:
“You didn’t know [that] I was an avid reader, did you?”
Regarding your question as to when to omit the “that,” I offer the
following answer: Beats the heck out of me.
I actually delved into this subject just a few weeks ago in this
column. And by “delved into” I mean cleverly danced around the huge
gaps in my own understanding of the subject.
Here’s what I do know, which I tried to pass off as thorough
understanding: It’s a bad idea to use “that” after “said,” because
when you do, technically you mean the person uttered the word “that.”
So, “Eleanor said that she would stop reading June’s column” is a
little less correct than, “Eleanor said she would stop reading June’s
column.” How do I know this? Because newspaper copy editors told me
so after fixing my stories for the umpteen-hundredth time.
But what about all the similar uses for “that": “I knew that I was
wrong.” “I sensed that I would be exposed the fool.” “Eleanor
realized that she had overestimated me.”
I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure this out, poring over
my little grammar books whose wisdom I like to disguise as my own.
And I came up quite short.
The only rule I know that applies is more of a general guideline
of newspaper writing than a true grammar rule. In newspaper writing,
economy of words is paramount. So whenever you can delete a word from
a sentence without changing the meaning, do so.
While this certainly is not a hard and fast rule in other types of
writing, it’s still a good guideline. The more words used to get
across an idea, the more cumbersome it is for the reader. Clarity and
efficiency often go hand in hand, so always cut the fat when you can.
One could argue that this applies to “that,” too. (And because one
has nothing solid to offer, that’s exactly the argument one makes.)
“She knew that she was failing to cover her backside.” “She knew she
was failing to cover her backside.”
So now that I’ve once again fudged my way around admitting that I
don’t know the answer and can’t figure it out, I’ll put it to the
thousands of you. Anyone know something the rest of us don’t? Perhaps
something involving scary words such as “prepositional” or
“nominative”? By all means, let’s hear ‘em. Because, as I’ve said,
this one beats the heck out of me. Deliver my humiliation to
You know, I’ve got to say, this whole confessing ignorance thing
is very liberating. I think I’m going to tell my cat that I don’t
know why I didn’t get a dog instead and tell my editors at the Daily
Pilot I’m pretty sure most of the stories I filed while on staff were
Yup, this ignorance thing is going to take me places.
I’m also taking suggestions for alternate names for the “Beats the
Heck Out of Me” columns. Current contenders include “Duh” and “If You
Had Any Idea How Little Writers Get Paid, You’d Be Amazed They Found
Someone Who Can Spell Her Own Name.”
* JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer. She can be reached at