Thursday, January 10, 2013

That Again

Okay, this is where "that" things get a little more complicated. We're going to talk about culling "that" when used as a conjunction, but before we do that, we have to talk about conjunctions.

A conjunction is a word used to conjoin (get it? conjoin - conjunction) pieces of a sentence. And we know that the specific conjunction used usually indicates something about the nature of that conjoining. That is, and creates unity, but creates an exception, and so on. Usually, we think of a limited list of words when we think of conjunctions (FANBOYS = For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So), but sometimes that can be used as a conjunction to join two independent clauses.

He promised that he would be back in an hour.
She dreamed all night that he held her while she slept.

If you look at the parts on either side of that, you see complete clauses. And normally, if you drop a conjunction from between two independent clauses, you get a run-on sentence.

He promised he would be back in an hour.
She dreamed all night he held her while she slept.

In this case, though, the first one doesn't read like a run-on. The second one does, and it's awkward to my eyes, but the first one is just fine. So what is the difference? Because if you understand this key difference, you'll understand how to drop that from this kind of construction -- and when to leave it in place.

If you look closely at the first clause of the first sentence, He promised, and think about what it resembles, you might hit on the right answer. It reads like a simple two-word tag.

He said, "I will be back in an hour."

With that sentence, our mind absorbs the dialogue tag (He said) and the dialogue with no trouble at all. It would be the same with a thought tag.

He thought he would be back in an hour.

In this case, He thought is the tag. Notice the ellipsis? "That" has been dropped from this sentence, same as in our first example sentence, and it's perfectly readable. So if you have a clause that's functioning like a tag, you can safely drop it (in most cases) without damaging the meaning or grace of your prose. This is one elliptical sentence form that readers will absorb seamlessly.

Now let's revisit the sentence that read like a run-on when that was dropped.

She dreamed all night that he held her while she slept.

I chose this example to illustrate a point about tags. You might think that "dreamed" here is a thought tag, but it's not. It's an active verb. You know how we sometimes joke about active verbs used as dialogue tags with disastrous results?

She snorted, "Guess who called today." 

What would it sound like to snort those words? Maybe this is the way a cartoon pig speaks? Or maybe it's completely impossible to snort words. This is an active verb, not a speech tag, and using it as a speech tag throws off the sentence.

Ditto with using this kind of verb as a thought tag, and heaven spare us from writers who think adding "silently" cures the problem.

She silently snorted, guess who called today.

Yeah, that's laughably bad. Our original example sentence isn't this blatantly awful, but it allows me to make this important point: When you're debating whether to cull "that" from a sentence that looks like it might describe thoughts (dreams could be described as thoughts, right?), you still have to watch out for this active verb issue. The less the clause resembles a pure thought or dialogue tag, the less chance you can get away with cutting the conjunction that.

There is one final detail to discuss. In the dream example, we have words intervening between the two clauses.

She dreamed all night that he held her while she slept.

Intervening  words can also contribute to awkwardness if "that" is dropped. If we moved those words, we get something marginally better with the dropped conjunction.

All night she dreamed he held her while she slept.

It's not great, but it makes it a little easier for a reader to interpret that clause "she dreamed" like a tag. It makes the ellipsis a bit easier to read. Even though it still has a small degree of awkwardness, I might leave this alone in a manuscript, depending on the clarity and grace of the context.

I think that takes care of the "that" as a conjunction. Next up, we'll talk about "that" as a relative pronoun and when we can cut it.


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