A Word, Please: Relatives that can easily be dropped

I got a great question from a reader named Bill in Florida. He asked about the following sentence, which I wrote in a recent column: "If I were to write that coffee smells good, I wouldn't hear a word about it."

Bill's question had to do with the word "that." He pointed out how "that" could have been omitted from the sentence entirely.

"What is the function (or purpose) of the word 'that' in the sentence?" Bill asked. "A structure of this form appears quite frequently and just uses up extra space whenever it is used."

Here's what I like about this question: To discern whether a usage is OK, Bill starts by asking about its function.

A lot of people seem to think grammar works like a penal code — a list of prohibitions that form a narrow line you must walk in order to be correct. But to me, grammar is more interesting than that. It's about understanding the mechanics of a sentence — how all the inner springs and gears work together to create meaning. And in this case, the gear in question is something called a relative pronoun.

The relative pronouns are "that," "which," "who" and "whom." Like many words, these can all sometimes function as other parts of speech too. For example, "that" can be a subject pronoun: "That is fantastic." But in sentences like the one Bill asked about, it's a relative pronoun.

A relative pronoun introduces something called a relative clause. The job of a relative clause is to "post-modify" a noun. That just means it comes after a noun to modify it. In "The house that we bought is yellow," the relative clause "that we bought" modifies the noun "house." In "The man who works hardest will get the promotion," the relative clause "who works hardest" describes the noun "man."

Bill wanted to know whether the relative pronoun "that" should be dropped from my sentence. It certainly could be. "The music I like" is a more efficient way of saying "The music that I like." But in fact, even when you drop "that," it's still there in spirit. "I like" is still a relative clause in this sentence, and it carries an implied "that" even if I don't use it.

There's even a term for the practice of dropping the "that." It's called the "zero relative."

So when should you use the zero relative — that is, when should you drop "that"? Whenever you think it works best.

Sometimes the "that" at the head of a relative clause is helpful in understanding the sentence.

"I always say the Pledge of Allegiance is inspirational." Here, without the word "that," the reader might think that "the Pledge of Allegiance" is the object of the verb "say." It sounds as though my point is that I recite the pledge. It's not until you get to the end of the sentence that you realize what I'm really saying is that the pledge is inspirational.

Anytime the relative pronoun "that" can prevent this kind of confusion, you should use it. The rest of the time, it's up to you to decide whether it's worth the extra ink. In my original sentence, it seemed to be. Without "that," my sentence would have contained the words "I say coffee ...," which don't sound as good to me as "I say that coffee ..."

But the opposite argument would be just as valid.

When in doubt, I say keep the "that." After all, the very nature of the clause — a relative clause — hinges on this relative pronoun. But when you think it adds nothing, you can drop it.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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