Friday, July 27, 2012

Writing 101: That That

If you spend any significant amount of time writing, the question is going to come up: when is it okay to consecutively repeat words? Most often, this question will arise in sentences where the word that appears. It might sounds silly at first blush -- who would write a sentence with that that in it? -- but I've seen it...a lot. And under any and all circumstances, no matter which big-selling author does it in their bestselling book, it is wrong. At times it may feel unavoidable, but it never is.


Repetition

I've blogged about over-use of the word that in the past, but it bears repeating. What doesn't need to be repeated is words. Always remember this: twice in a row is too many. 

Scoff if you will, but that that actually crops up more often than you might think. In fact, when I went looking for examples of the dreaded that that, I found too many: 

"I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing is frowned upon... you know, 'cause I've worked in a lot of offices, and I tell you, people do that all the time."
-George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander), Seinfeld

"If I said yes, that would then suggest that that might be the only place where it might be done which would not be accurate, necessarily accurate. It might also not be inaccurate, but I'm disinclined to mislead anyone."
-Donald Rumsfeld

"It is perfectly true that that government is best which governs least. It is equally true that that government is best which provides most."
-Walter Lippmann

The quotes above could easily give a reader pause; when you hear the words spoken in the cadence of dialogue, they do make perfect sense. But chances are pretty good that I'm not reading your book out loud -- and as an author, you've got to use a bit better grammar than this. So if a team of authors (or just one) cleaned up the quotes above to eliminate the dreaded that that, what might they look like? 

I'm so glad you asked: 
  • I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that sort of thing is frowned upon... you know, 'cause I've worked in a lot of offices, and I tell you, people do that all the time.
Sometimes, you can simply eliminate one of the thats and find that the sentence still makes perfect sense. It's also cleaner and, most importantly, grammatically correct.

  • If I said yes, that would then suggest that it might be the only place where it might be done which would not be accurate, necessarily accurate. It might also not be inaccurate, but I'm disinclined to mislead anyone.
  • It is perfectly true that a government is best which governs least. It is equally true that a government is best which provides most.
In some cases, that simply needs to be replaced with another word; which, who and it are often your best options.

But it's not always so easy. When the repeated words end and start two separate sentences, or contractions get involved, the grammar rules start to get a bit blurred:

"I guess I still feel that I'm a comedian; if I had to pick one thing that I feel like I could do, it would be that. That doesn't mean that I like it, but I feel that's what I am."
-Larry David

"We can make sure that we resolve the issues. And I think that that's what the Tea Party was all about."
-Allen West

Iffy, right? When the same word ends one sentence and begins the very next sentence, you aren't technically breaking any grammar rules -- but you should see if you can tweak your sentences so the two don't end up running up against each other. And in the case of using that that's, usually the first that can be eliminated and you won't lose any of the sentence's meaning. When the writing gets tricky, read it several times and play with your words. See if you can make sensible substitutions and eliminations to clean it up; if you think it sounds better with repeated words, leave it in.

And the Exception...

Of course, there are exceptions to just about every rule of grammar, and that's that. In this case, literally. The phrase that's that is extremely common, and technically it doesn't break any rules. The contraction that's is really just a shorter way of writing that is, so when someone says that's that they're actually saying that is that -- so no words are being repeated.

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1 comment:

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