Over the last two decades, I’ve worked with authors possessing a wide range of writing skills. Some of my favorite projects were writers who likely didn’t fare so well in English class during high school, but their creativity and story telling ability far made up for their inability to tell the difference between a semi-colon and a comma. However, I will tell you, there is something truly wonderful about getting a manuscript across my electronic desk that not only offers a well-crafted story but also is from a writer who has a firm command of grammar and punctuation.

With this in mind, I wanted to talk about one of the two most common mistakes I see in manuscripts and how to avoid it. I’ll admit this is a selfish post. I’m honestly hoping this advice filters its way through the Internet, reaching all writers out there and this will selfishly mean I get better quality manuscripts submitted. 😊 However, it won’t just make my job easier, it will also give you a greater chance a publisher is going to pick up your work.

Win-win, right?!

OK, let’s get on to it!

That Damn That!

It’s a simple word, but it’s like nails on a chalkboard to many editors and publishers alike. Too often it’s a filler word. Let’s call it a “literary umm.” As such, if you want your writing to be clear and concise (as you should), before you send your manuscript off do a FIND for the word “that.” Much of the time, you’re going to simply delete it.

Here’s how to tell if it should be deleted. Can your “that” be replaced by the word “which?” If so, keep it! If not, chances are it can be deleted. Following are some examples.

He slept better knowing that his bills were paid.

Let’s try to replace “that” with “which” –

He slept better knowing, which his bills were paid.

Hmmm… that doesn’t make sense, so let’s try removing it completely.

He slept better knowing his bills were paid.

Voila! Clear and concise!

Let’s look at another example – this time where “that” is being used to indicate a defining clause.

My dog that has three legs is under the bed.

My dog, which has three legs, is under the bed.

You can make the “which” swap, and the sentence meaning holds – go ahead and keep the “that!”

….PSST! Bonus material at the end!!!…

However, even when you can make the “which” replacement, sometimes there’s a better choice.

She yelled at the child that was throwing stones.

She yelled at the child, which was throwing stones.

The “which” replacement isn’t completely incorrect, and simply removing the “that” doesn’t make sense either. This is where you need an alternative and need to consider what the “that” is really referring to. In this case, it’s a person – the child, so let’s replace the “that” with a “who.”

She yelled at the child who was throwing stones.

That’s so much better!


Do you see the sentence above! There’s your third most-common variation. When the “that” can’t be replaced with a “which,” but it still directs the reader to a specific thing so needs to be included, this is when you also need a “that.”

I know it seems silly and even confusing; however, if you master when and how to use “that” it’s going to make your writing so much more pleasant to read.

If you’ve followed me this far, then I know you’re actually pretty serious about being the best writer you can be! That’s awesome! Here’s the bonus material I mentioned.

That vs. Which: When to Use Them

Remember I mentioned using “which” as sort of a litmus test for whether or not you should keep your “that?” Well, that’s not exactly accurate. Although it’s a good first test to help folks improve their writing, if you REALLY want to master the “that,” you’ll need to know when you should use “that” and when you should use “which,” because they’re not interchangeable!

As mentioned, that is used as in indicator of a defining clause or restrictive phrase. This means the clause is something important to the meaning of the sentence. On the flip side of this, “which” is used for non-restrictive phrases.

Let’s go back to the three-legged dog example.

My dog that has three legs is under the bed.

My dog, which has three legs, is under the bed.

In the first sentence, because you’re using “that,” you’re indicating you have more than one dog. You’re using the defining clause of “that has three legs” to differentiate the dog under the bed from your other dog or dogs.

In the second sentence, by using the word “which,” you’re indicating you only have one dog and are simply giving some details about the pooch, which aren’t critical to the meaning of the sentence. This is why the non-restrictive phrase is set apart by commas with “which.” You can remove that section without fear of confusing the reader.

If you only have one dog, and he’s under the bed, then obviously the dog under the bed has three legs.

Clear as mud, right? 😊

Happy writing!

Kimberly is the founder and managing editor of Cypress Canyon Publishing. She does not edit her own writing, so please forgive her for any errors. She is a firm believer in the – Do as I say, not as I do Rule.  😀

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