Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, January 5, 2009

Can I Get a Ruling: Beginning a Sentence With "That"?

I'm back! Happy '09, everyone. May all of you win the lottery.

Longtime readers may have noted that in an effort to make this blog more... well, professional, I have cut back on the amount of virtual ink I devote to reality television. Yes, I know. I was attacked by a bout of seriousness. I'm sure I fooled everyone.

But there are times when men are shaped by momentous events that leave us powerless to the whims of fate, and swift, forceful action is required as a result. Such an epochal event is occurring this evening. And that is the premiere of The Bachelor.

NOT JUST ANY BACHELOR. You see, this year's Bach is Jason, perhaps the most achingly earnest Bachelor in the history of Bachelors. Not only did Jason so wholeheartedly believe in the premise of finding true love on the Bachelorette that even host Chris Harrison had to have been confused, he is also proud father of young Ty, and thus the first single dad Bach.

So many questions. Will Ty give out the roses to the bachelorettes? Will Chris Harrison sit down with Ty for serious interviews? Will the bachelorettes try to bribe Ty with cool toys? Will people feel guilty for deriving so much guilty entertainment at the expense of Ty's lifetime of therapy bills?

It will be.... something.

Meanwhile:

Call me crazy, but I have been getting stuck on sentences that begin with the word "that." Not just as in, "That was cool," I mean actual complex sentences. As in:

That I am asking you this question should tell you that I develop strange aversions from from to time.

or

That he had the smelliest breath in the general vicinity was not in doubt.

Is this a conversational trope I just haven't heard? Is this some sort of Southern hemisphere thing? Are the kids beginning their sentences with the word "That" and I'm just hopelessly uncool? Can it be done well?

Please give me a ruling.







118 comments:

Professor Tarr said...

That there is a child involved in the latest Bachelor is a little unnerving to me. I enjoy reality shows in general and know a few of the Survivors from seasons past, but to toss a child in the midst of that type of madness seems beyond manipulative to me. That they did so is a raw shudder awaiting upon my spine to happen.

That it will be compelling tv is not of question. It shall no doubt be such.

Josephine Damian said...

That somebody was impersonating me on Twitter and that the first person on my suspect list - Josephine - turned out NOT to be the impersonator - that I was able to suss out the real imposter - that is why I finally joined Twitter.

Scott (Thinking Man) said...

Nathan:

Unless it's dialouge, I think starting a sentence with 'that' is just bad writing. It's awkward and passive. I would avoid it like a tumor.

Back 100 years ago when I went to journalism school, I remember my reporting TA warning us to edit out ALL of the 'thats.' Generally speaking, I think it's a crutch. It's the written equivalent of saying, "ah, um ... know what I'm saying."

Becky Mushko said...

You can indeed begin a sentence with that.

That you are thinking of a TV show instead of thinking about the publishing world is a matter of concern to your fans.

In the above sentence, "That you are thinking of a TV show" is a noun clause used as the subject.

A noun clause may start with that.

(Note: I am a retired English teacher.)

Kimberly J. Smith said...

I believe beginning a sentence with "that," as you have demonstrated, is technically correct. Whether it's a speedbump to a reader (as in slowing down the flow) is another matter. Personally, I'm against it.

As for the Bachelor... only time will tell on how much little Ty is involved in the lunacy that is TB. Something tells me they will play it up a bit too much for my liking. Kid gloves, people. Kid gloves!

Sharon Gerlach said...

That we develop strange aversions from time to time is undeniable. Recently I developed one regarding the use of "as if" and opted for the equally acceptable (at least by English grammar rules) "as though".

Just the other day in the latest MS, I caught myself writing "as if" so I think I'm recovering.

That this too shall pass should be comforting. ;-)

Julie Butcher-Fedynich said...

That I am confused is an understatement.

Historical romance dialogue, maybe.

Jeanie W said...

I agree that beginning a sentence with "That" sounds awkward. It is only slightly less annoying than opening with "The fact that."

Crystal D said...

I don't know about everyone else, but that at the beginning of a sentence just sounds awkward. It sounds...weird.

And this season of the Bachelor does sound good. I saw a preview of it on Saturday, and Jason might get a crazy stalker in this season! I don't usually watch it, but I might this year.

Sandra said...

While it may be technically correct to use a noun phrase beginning with "that" at the start of a sentence, the examples you posted were awkward and wordy. It might be OK to use "that" at the start of a sentence occasionally if it suits your writing style, but in general I would reword to make the sentence easier to understand. And that is all I have to say about "that." ;)

Don said...

The cases you've given are all examples of beginning a sentence with a conjunction. Most manuals of style discourage, if not prohibit, such constructions. That said, if used sparingly and consciously, beginning a sentence with a conjunction can be a useful construction.

There's an entertaining exchange in the movie "Finding Forrester" on the subject, by the way.

Matt B said...

Agree with JW. It's a substitute for "the fact that." Probably technically okay, but I think you only get like one per lifetime.

ryan field said...

I almost want to hate it. But I don't.

Crimogenic said...

I've seen the commercials for the new Bachelor. I'm usually not a fan of the show, but I do find myself already wishing for success for the bachelor because he's a single guy with a kid.

I'm not going to bash beginning a complex sentence with 'that', but I'm not sure why one would do that. Also, I'm sure there are crafty writers who can pull off just about anything thing even with the style police watching.

Anonymous said...

As long as it is grammatically correct and not confusing, I don't have a problem with using that at the beginning of a sentence. I don't think it is necessary to use that twice though.

Professor Tarr said...

I have to admit to kind of freaking when I saw this. I quickly scanned my latest posts to make sure I hadn't strayed. But then I got to thinking about it and there is a certain erudite rhythm to the phrasing that is not necessarily alien to my writing. It would have to be tempered by the lyricism of the moment, but I bet if I dig through my stuff, I could find some uses of it.

Eek!

Martin Willoughby said...

There's nothing particularly wrong with starting a sentence with 'that', it's just a bit too 19th/20th century for my liking.

Abby said...

That your newfound turn toward seriousness might preclude your continued discussion of The Hills (and dare I add The City?) distresses me.

word verification: cultings - as in, "With Nathan's departure from the scene, the firmament of Hills cultings grows dimmer."

Anita said...

I have a problem with "that" everywhere, not just at the beginning of sentences. Awhile back, Janet Reid asked people to get rid of as many "thats" in their manuscripts as possible. I went from about 80,000 words to 200.

But enough about that. I think the new Bach seems like a good dude. I read he visited a child psych before going on the initial Bach, so I'm sure he's doing all he can to shelter litte Ty's brain.

Have you seen Momma's Boy? Oh man, that (there's "that" again) is one crazy reality show. I have to take a shower after watching it, I feel so dirty. (And, yet, I still watch it).

Marilyn Peake said...

I don't think beginning a sentence with "that" is necessarily a problem, as long as the writing still flows. It's been done well, even by Shakespeare. Extraneous conjunctions and prepositions drag writing down no matter where they're placed, at the beginning or middle of sentences.

Julia Weston said...

It's like a literary speed bump.

Welcome back and enjoy The Bachelor! I'm more of a House girl.

Roy Hayward said...

Nathan,

I don't think that we can exclude 'that' as a sentence beginner. That is not to say that excessive use of 'that' in the beginning of sentences can't become tiresome. It can. And does. But there are times when 'that' is the best way to begin. Any repetitive word use can become tiresome and crutch like when over used. That's just they way it is. So I agree that writers should avoid awkward crutches, simply outlawing one doesn't really solve the problem.

The solution is better proof reading. Probably including reading some of your work out loud to make sure you don't sound jumbled and clunky. That's the way I try to avoid falling into this problem.

Nanci Block said...

Nathan - I read your blog religiously, yet rarely comment due to my "newbie" writer status; I prefer to read and gain wisdom from the wings. However, I had to weigh in on The Bachelor. I am so excited about Single Dad Jason! If I was single, I totally would have signed up for the show. I spent weeks downing the "damn snowboarder" after DeAnna's shocking decision last season. My husband was quite vindicated since he is a snowboarder and was rooting for Jesse all along. I loved DeAnna, don't get me wrong, but I think she found her match, and now it is time for Jason to find his.

Nothing But Bonfires said...

You cannot begin to IMAGINE how excited I am about the premiere of The Bachelor tonight. Well, actually, I'm sure you can. I've had it written in my planner for WEEKS. It's going to be the most dramatic season yet!

I think this year I might have a Bachelor Finale Viewing Party at the end of the season. Shots for everyone! Shots with roses in them!

Deirdre Mundy said...

That starting a sentence with that annoys you is not suprising.

On the one hand, it is perfectly appropriate when writing Latin or Greek,

But on the other hand, By Jove, it is poor style in English!

Grammatically correct does not always mean "well written"

yvettesgonefishing said...

As you all sit at the edge of your seats anticipating the Bachelor, I am chiming in here for the show Monk. The second half of the new season 7 begins this friday with a new episode (that I've already seen, thanks to being able to attend the Paley event in California on 12/2) about Monk's half brother. I can you it's every bit of hilarious!

Hand to God! rofl.

Erik said...

The particular construction is one that is colloquial at best. I think it can be junked without losing much. That's not to say there aren't other ways of using it correctly, as Becky pointed out.

Incidentally, voting for 2008 Weblog Awards is about to begin (and should have by now). My blog Barataria is up for Best Culture Blog and our own Nathan Bransford is up for Best Literature Blog.

Thanks for your support!

other lisa said...

Well, I'll admit it - I've used "that" to begin a sentence. It depends on the narrative voice.

I have never watched The Bachelor but I just may start...

Ann Victor said...

Happy 2009 to you and all the blog readers, Nathan! it's going to be a great year!

AC said...

J-school is still the same (or it was four years ago when I was there). "That" is verboten, as is "the fact that". I hate that phrase with an all-consuming passion. It should be banned from writing for all eternity cause it just sucks the life out of prose.

BTW, word verification is a Real Word today: spine.

Annette Lyon said...

You could do it--if you're Charles Dickens.

It may be grammatically correct, but it's exceedingly awkward for contemporary writing.

Camels & Chocolate said...

This is the first I'm hearing of That. Though it would drive me bananas, too.

That there should be a Bachelor pool, similar to the ANTM challenge, is not even a question.

BJ said...

Beginning a sentence with 'that' in the context you give isn't wrong. However, as someone said, it *is* passive writing, and as such should be used sparingly and only when of utmost effect.

Lisa Dez said...

That is possibly the stupidest thing I ever heard. That said, there may be times were starting a sentence with That is appropriate.

That the way to the bachelor is through is kid is a given. That, however, can come to no good in the end.

That’s all I have to say except…

That my verification word was SPOCKSH is compelling me to add the salutation “Live long and prosper.”

Amy said...

Yuck on "that", cross it out whenever it's not necessary, it's lazy writing.

Yipee on the Bachelor! I can't believe she passed on him last time. I had Jason picked as the winner from the first day. This is a "must" see season. I can't say the same for Rock of Love Bus Tour my husband had me watch last night.

I also recommend The City with Whitney.

Kelly said...

While I'm sure that it's perfectly acceptable to begin a sentence with "that", I'd rather not see it. Aside from being passive, it's kind of a stumbling block that prevents the rest of the sentence from having any kind of natural flow.

C.D. Reimer said...

If I encounter the words "that," "as" or "with" in my own writings, that's an open invitation to revise the sentence if I'm not being clear.

Bryn Greenwood said...

I feel a surprising neutrality about beginning a sentence with "That." Of course, I suspect that since I stopped teaching Freshman Composition I see a lot fewer "experiments in writing" than you do.

Leon Basin said...

Hey, how are you doing?

disorderly said...

That there are so many reality TV fans lurking about on a literature blog is a bit distressing. Shouldn't we be WRITING instead of immersing ourselves in the worst of the worst on the tube? (At least watch something scripted. There are starving writers in India, you know. ;-) )

Give me a That at the beginning of a sentence any day over one indiscriminately stuck in the middle where it really isn't needed. (Recovering journalist here, too.)

Kat Harris said...

Wow.

I just clicked on comments just to see how many of your witty readers would leave a comment starting with the word that.

:-I

lotusgirl said...

WELCOME BACK! Happy New Year! I have so missed your fresh take on life and reality TV and writing.

I hope with all that is in me that they keep that adorable Ty out of things as much as possible.

The beginning "That" can go jump, but I have a certain love for my indirect statement "that" among others. I know he doesn't have to be there, but sometimes I just like him there.

Here's a thought for your "Can I get a ruling?" thing. Being the old fossil that I am, I've only recently become aware that 2 spaces between sentences is a horror and annoys some people in the extreme. Who knew? Is this the new generation gap? Does that glaring, gaping hole between sentences bug you?

FYI: lotusgirl was lotusloq--I changed up all my blogging stuff so... new name.

Scott said...

A bit passive, a bit British, and certainly speed-bumpish, but I would never stop someone from being creative with language if it managed to fit the space.

Ditch the Bachelor, Nathan, and head on over to VH1. The reality shows there can be described a bit like Satanists describe their religion in comparison to the rest of the world's: they know the concept is mostly bull, they just don't bother hiding it. :)

unness n. 1. used to describe the condition of wishing one was never born. Having dropped what would have been the winning pass in the end zone, the receiver was overcome with a feeling of unness.

Anonymous said...

That it may be gramatically correct, doesn't mean it still isn't annoying to the reader to read a sentence that starts with that. See what I mmean?

(Yippee, Nathan's back!)

Elissa M said...

Starting a sentence with "that" should be deliberate and done for effect (as many comments here have demonstrated). Otherwise, it's just sloppy, and sloppy writing is always wrong.

Anonymous said...

THAT:

For dialog, no problem. "That way," she said.

For narrative, trickier, but it can work. Especially as a fragment.

Joe tossed back the triple shot. That which does not kill you, and all that.

Or:

That had to be the worst case of agorophibia this hospital has ever seen.

Lot of ways to do that.

Elyssa Papa said...

I'll be watching The Bachelor tonight, too. The show is always about the contestants, I find . . . you always have a crazy stalker type, a "good" girl, and the girl everyone loves to hate.

Sentences with that don't bother me, but maybe it's all my British literature influence??

RW said...

When I first became a newspaper reporter, my editor struck out any sentence I wrote that began with That is/was, There is/were, or It is/was. She couldn't rationalize her objection, so I assume it was a matter of taste--one that I shared and so appreciated her keeping an eye out for. Later in life I understood better what was going on when I read a book called "Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace" by Joseph Williams. He doesn't argue against starting a sentence with that, there or it, but he argues against turning verbs into nouns (nominalizations), using abstractions as the subject and using weak verbs. I eventually realized that you will tend to write the really bad stuff if you start a sentence on the wrong foot--i.e. with that, there and it. Those words aren't in themselves what usually confuses or annoys readers, but they right away rob of you of a clear, physically alive subject and box you into using a weak verb.

Thus my editor's habit of avoiding any sentence that begins that way. I've found that that, there and it at the beginning of sentences are great flags for other syntax problems. I regularly go through my drafts and look for those flags and often end up rewriting the sentence, usually with a character as the subject and an action as the verb.

Lupina said...

Starting a sentence with THAT should be reserved for the very skillful, the very colloquial, and the very reluctant.

My own pet bugaboo, and the one I find myself striking most often, is JUST. That every time I think I've just about got it expunged from my vocabulary it sneaks right back, is just too frustrating.

JES said...

If a given manuscript starts a LOT of sentences that way -- especially within a given N pages -- sure, it's awkward and probably an affectation.

But (don't you just HATE sentences starting with a conjunction?!?) it's really not too too awful, I think. (It's better than "The fact that...") Reversing the word order to eliminate can actually change the meaning and/or tone of a sentence, subtly. Consider:

That I am asking you this question should tell you that I develop strange aversions from from to time.

can be recast as:

I develop strange aversions from time to time, as you should be able to tell just from my asking the question.

The first "awkward" form suspends to the end of the sentence the notion of strange aversions. To my mind, this transitions more easily into a further discussion of the aversions. The second form seems to emphasize the writer-reader relationship -- "You DO get this, don't you?!?" -- in a rather self-conscious way, momentarily tabling what is the more important subject at hand.

And I also think it's possible to overthink all of this. Whether I'm overthinking, you are, or we both are, I leave to your judgment. :)

(Welcome back!)

MzMannerz said...

I voted against. That should tell you something.

Hee. Get it? Get it?

Never mind. :)

Dana said...

Um... ew, just ew. I can barely even make it through those sentences without getting irritated.

acpaul said...

That the use of "that" to begin a sentence is annoying goes without saying, even though many of us are saying that.

That the only things worse than "that" is like all those people who start every sentence with "like" is even more annoying.

Kimber An said...

It all depends on context.

I suppose if I had to read 100 queries in one sitting with more than a few with such sentences, I'd develop an aversion to them as well.

I don't have time for reality shows because I'm too busy with, um, reality. However, I think it's awesome the Bachelor is a single dad. There are so many wonderful single parents who deserve life partners of their very own.

Besides, children can spot fakes a mile away.

Give that kid a chance and he'll wipe out every gold digger in that whole flock of cluckers.

Only a woman who truly cares about the Bachelor AND the child would be left standing. If there is one at all.

TERI REES WANG said...

I think we have finally dismantled the word "like" in general teen age lingo. So what about "had, had" as the glue at the joint of a re-connected statement?
"If I had had enough time, I would have had another slice of pie".

Janet said...

I'm not voting. There are sometimes stylistic reasons for beginning a complex sentence with "that", but most of the time, it's just excess wordiness.

So it shouldn't be banned, just used with extreme caution.

Chatty Kelly said...

That was a great post. (Sometimes you just gotta use it!)

As for the Bachelor - Call me old fashion, but I have a hard time believing people find "true love" on a reality TV show. And yes, therapy bills await young Ty. THAT is no lie. :)

Anonymous said...

I've heard my niece, on more than one occasion, carry a whole cell-phone conversation with brassy usage of the word "that."

Example:

I can't believe that; that really happened? That's so weird. Who told you that? No. No! That's awesome. I SO want to do that. We're going to do that. We HAVE to do that. I've never even heard of that...

It never seems to end.

ChristaCarol said...

Alright, I voted against it. Though I don't mind it horribly, it's still rather . . . annoying to me. Just something about it.

And welcome back!

Just_Me said...

Some sentences can get away with a "that" as the first word. I couldn't read a whole book written that way, but one or two sentences won't kill me.

Captain Hook said...

Grrr!

Sentences that begin with "that" annoy me to the point that I usually skip over them. They fall into the same category as "to be" verbs for me.

Amber said...

"That" at the beginning of the sentence is a British thing; I've seen it mostly in 19th C British novels, particulary of the witty social satire variety - Jane Austen and her brand. It works/ed well in that genre and context but in most modern-day novels it seems artificial and outdated. I can't say it's something I hate however, and as long as it's used sparingly it can be an effective way to vary sentence construction.

beth said...

"That", like "was" or "just", is among the most commonly overused words. It's weak writing. If you can get rid of it, then cut it. Use it as little as you possibly can.

Carpenter said...

Most of the time you can cut "that" out. In most cases it does nothing. We can all agree then to cut that out.

mray said...

I can't help thinking that most people's aversion to sentences which begin with "That" bespeaks a fear of the full breadth of the English language. Too many writers feel that have to only write in the vernacular, that their writing should reflect how people actually speak. I think there is a place for that, especially in dialogue, but how about some adventures in style. I must reiterate what someone said earlier because it is the only correct response. There are styles to which "That" is suited. I can imagine it in the current novel I am reading, John Crowley's "Little, Big" -- which, by the way, is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read.

Maniac Scribbler said...

*shudder* Those make my head hurt. I know that I do start some of my own sentences with "that", though, so I don't know how much I can say...It was quite hard to even write these sentences without it, now that I'm thinking about it.
ManiacScribbler =^..^=

Heidi C. Vlach said...

There's probably a way to use a "that" sentence without it seeming convoluted and pretentious. I just can't think of what that way is.

Anonymous said...

This blog is an amazing source for brilliant, indispensable information that I use time and again, and, Nathan, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all I’ve learned. But (you’re cringing on that one, aren’t you?) upon occasion, it can be extremely annoying. First, characters are only allowed to have “said” something, because anything else is just bad writing. So, eagar to be a good writer, I edited out, with a vengeance, every sneered, jeered, smirked and ejaculated I could find. Then I’m to treat dialog like paprika and sprinkle it sparingly. Ever heard of Hungarian goulash? Because you need about a cup-worth’s for that one. And now “that” is a four letter word. The last time I read a book that I couldn’t put down, I really didn’t notice what word each sentence began with or if anybody was talking too much or smirking or sneering for all they was worth. I only noticed that I couldn’t put it down. Like you've often said, if it works, it works, and the inconsequential what have yous don’t matter. That said, if a stray “that” is all that’s standing between me and publication, I’m going to throw caution to the wind and leave all my poor maligned thats right where they are.

STS

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

If you notice, I never come down too firmly on any particular "rule." That's because there are none, except if it works it works.

However, I think sometimes when beginners write... they just write. They don't think about their words and phrases -- which ones might be overused, which ones might be cliches, and thus the words I end up seeing aren't carefully chosen.

All these annoying posts are meant to do is to make people take another look. If their "That" is well-chosen or their non-said tag is apt, then great! There are no rules. All I aim to do with these posts is to prompt that second look. Trust me, sometimes it's needed.

rightonmom said...

Wow, reading the comments just felt like a high school grammar class all over again, except I used the words 'like,totally' a lot back then. Luckily I use the strikethrough key on words like 'that'. Generally, I'm not opposed so long as its done well.
As far as the Bachelor, mercy. Start the therapy fund..just sayin.

Bookish Cook said...

Glad to see your love of reality TV has not died. That I can't wait to hear your comments on The City is undoubtedly true.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

The 'said' thing - is like the 'adverb/adjective' thing (dontcha hate it when people use 'thing' all the time?)

Meaning, if you are relying on "sneered" "cheered" "jeered" etc, maybe your dialogue isn't doing the work it should - a character's emotions/mental state should be (can be?) implicit in their words, as well as the setting, the plot, what they're wearing, etc, most of the time...and if you've got to pile on the adverbs/adjectives, maybe you're not choosing your verbs/nouns carefully enough...and then again, if you're more careful about the rhythm of your language, that in and of itself will convey the emotion without having to resort to speech descriptors (?) and adverbs/adjectives...

I just reread what I wrote and can't even make sense of it...

Cough syrup, iron pills, more ABBA...it's hard to figure out what this Monday evening requires...

Adam Heine said...

If we're using "that" as a conjuction, as you have in all of your examples in the post, then no, I don't like it. It's awkward and passive.

However, if we're using "that" as a pronoun - e.g. "That's not fair" or "That's not the way I would do it" or "That night he slept surprisingly well" - then I have no problem with it.

That said, one should be careful with the word "that" at all times. It's a dangerously overused word.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Hi Professor Tarr,

I read your tale of being at Disney, and went to your blog, and maybe I'm missing something, but what was the book in question?

Sorry, a bit befuddled at the moment,

Wanda B.

BarbS. said...

That's enough of that, if popular opinion has its way!

Nathan, may we have a virtual party WHEN you win your Bloggy?

That I could not resist asking that is possibly a potential no-brainer...

Wordver: dighth. How very Anglo Saxonith!

Marilynn Byerly said...

"That" certainly isn't used in my part of the South, North Carolina, as part of common speech.

But it does have a King James Bible rhetorical element that would be comfortable from the pulpit or the law court.

"That he owned a Colt 45, that he stated on numerous occasions his hatred of John, that he had no alibi during the time of the murder, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, proves that he could have murdered John."

Cam said...

This use of "that" IS grammatically correct; it's just awkward - and passive - when used to start a sentence.

You could phrase your two examples this way:

First ex: "I develop strange aversions from from to time; hence my question."

and ...

"No doubt he had the smelliest breath in the general vicinity."

-Cam

tcscrib said...

As a non-retired English teacher, I'd have to agree with Becky way up at the top of the comments that "That ..." is a perfectly grammatical way to begin a sentence.

However, I think it's not the question of grammatical correctness that has raised Nathan's hackles, but the head-tilt-inspiring awkwardness of the construction.

While it's true that it can be used well, I'm voting to encourage people at least to think before subjecting the rest of us to such funkiness of phrasing. After all, isn't the goal to keep your reader reading?

Keep fighting the fight, Nathan! We're with you!

Adam Heine said...

Sorry, my third example used "that" as an adjective, not a pronoun. But my conclusion still stands. For me, starting with "that" as conjuction = bad; starting with "that" as pronoun or adjective = not inherently a problem.

Anita said...

My problem with that is not when it starts a sentence. For example, I have no problem with this:

"I was so distracted reading queries, I missed The Bachelor," Nathan cried.

"That sucks," said Anita.

However, I do not like this use of that:

"I was so distracted reading queries, that I missed the Bachelor," Nathan cried.

A Paperback Writer said...

So, you don't care much for noun clauses used as subjects of a sentence if that noun clause begins with the word "that" used as a relative pronoun?
I don't mind ONCE IN A WHILE.
It'd drive me nuts to read something that had every third sentence beginning that way.

Annalee said...

Starting a sentence with "That" may be technically correct in that it's a noun clause, but "The window was broken by Bob" is also technically correct. That doesn't stop "Bob broke the window" from being a better idea in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred.

Personally, I want my writing to be invisible. Not in the invisible ink sense, but in the sense that when people read something I've written, I want them to be paying attention to what I've written, not how I've written it. That would be difficult if I didn't try to keep a firm grasp on good grammar and usage, but not everything that's correct is clear, and not everything that's clear is correct. Clarity trumps correctness.

Verbal acrobatics are well and neat when that's what you're up to, but novels are more like marathons. The person doing backflips down the course probably isn't going to take home the gold.

Hilary said...

I voted yes, but then I read the comments and started cringing every time I saw one of those "that" sentences.
I think the issue here is with bad writing decisions rather than sentences beginning with "that." Good writing is sensitive to the purpose of the work. Throw a sentence with that type of structure into one of Janet Evanovich's novels and it won't work because it's too heavy for the idea of the piece. It also doesn't work in a query letter because query letters should be short, simple, and informative. However, put it into a doctoral thesis on religion and it works just fine.

L.C. Gant said...

Welcome back, Nathan! Happy New Year to you as well.

Even if it is grammatically acceptable to begin a sentence with the word "that," I find it irritating beyond words. Kind of like scraping one's fingernails across a blackboard. I think it should be avoided for the most part, along with other weird phrases like "sorta kinda" and "a whole 'nother."

Regarding this season of the Bachelor, I'm partly intrigued and partly disturbed by the idea of Ty being involved. I'm not sure what's worse--the idea that the producers would use him as a gimmick for the show or that his dad would allow it to happen. Still, I have to admit, it DOES look like it will make for good TV...

Beth said...

It gives me the heebie-jeebies that single parents of little children would go on reality dating shows. Dating with small children is difficult enough without televising the ordeal.

Also, beginning a sentence with "that" is almost always pretentious enough to make me put down whatever I was reading.

redhorse said...

I try to eliminate the word "that" from my writing altogether (speeches, reports, and the occasional creative piece). The word frequently begins spoken sentences, and so I wouldn't quibble with it starting a sentence in dialogue.

Liz said...

So is everybody doing votes now? This is the third vote on a literary blog in as many days.

I voted in approval of "that," but now that I read a few, I'm hearing Yoda's voice in my head reading them. That can't be good.

Liz said...

Okay, here's my example that might not make everyone cringe. Or if it does, it's another clue why I remain agentless and unpublished.

Lucy drummed her fingers on the table. Three days without a phone call was unacceptable. That he might not be that into her never entered her thoughts. The guy was just a jerk.

Sarah Jensen said...

And that is exactly why I go through a whole edit looking for things like that.

Anonymous said...

That people really still watch all this reality TV surprises me. Not to mention, men are addicted to it. Frightening! So sorry Nathan... I don't find it very interesting. I find real life so much more exciting. Call me "old fashioned" I guess. Maybe it's because there just aren't many good writers out there in TV? It's all those people writing those dam books isn't it? That's where the money is...(Hahaha....)

No...on the "that" question. It sounds ridiculous.

Madison said...

The word That cannot readily begin a complex statement. Most times, it doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

I too was told by an English professor to limit the use of "that" everywhere, as much as possible, to improve any and all writing. It really isn't needed 95% of the time it's used.

The new thing bugging me is how TV news reporters are beginning a sentence or statement with a proper noun like, "Julie Smithers; she just won the race!" or "The Redskins. They won't be going to the playoffs."

Adaora A. said...

I just finished watching THE BACHELOR tonight and I loved it. I particularly laughed the most when the wedding planner lamented that she would continue to plan OTHER folks happy endings and not her own.

His son isn't going to be on it much Professor. I remember it being said briefly that his brother is going to help look after TY and the sweetie wouldn't be on the tellie much. As it should be.

I really find using 'that' as awkward. I think it's got a clunkiness to it that makes starting something with it, what you can liken to a boat weight.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Oh, I'm flashing back to my college linguistics courses here. I remember doing an entire unit devoted to sentences beginning with 'that'.

'That' can be used to begin a noun clause, regardless of where that clause is in the sentence. Thus, your examples are technically correct, but whether they are examples of good writing is a matter of personal taste. They don't bother me too much, although they tend to sound rather formal or old-fashioned, and can seem awkward if not handled well.

Rachelle said...

That you are a literary agent who watches shows like The Bachelor is of concern to me. That I, also, am a literary agent, and that I spent two hours walking on the treadmill tonight just so I could guiltlessly watch The Bachelor, is of even more concern. And that I can't help it, I love that freakin' show, well, there is no hope, is there?

Avily Jerome said...

Welcome back!!! I missed you!

I was a little disappointed with the lack of voting options there.

While I don't start many a sentence with "that," I don't really have a problem with it, either.

I think its overuse is due to people trying to sound smart or literary, and that just makes it sound ridiculous, but really, would it hurt anyone if an occassional "that" graced the beginning of a sentence?

Avily Jerome said...

Welcome back!!! I missed you!

I was a little disappointed with the lack of voting options there.

While I don't start many a sentence with "that," I don't really have a problem with it, either.

I think its overuse is due to people trying to sound smart or literary, and that just makes it sound ridiculous, but really, would it hurt anyone if an occassional "that" graced the beginning of a sentence?

Simon Haynes said...

"Can I Get a Ruling: Beginning a Sentence With "That"?"

Sounds like cleveritis to me. That's where the author's desire to impress hobbles their ability to entertain.

And what sort of word ver is iscupti? Sounds like a gargled sneeze.

Anonymous said...

"That" as a beginning is grammatically legal, but the structure that follows can be delightfully conversational or cringingly stilted.

Heather said...

That (i.e., using "That" at the beginning of a complex sentence) is hopelessly uncool (to readers), not you.

Wendalyn Nichols said...

In English, we use clauses as the subjects of sentences all the time, and not only ones that begin with "that." We can say
"How we use language is what makes us human," for instance, and we're using a "how"-clause as the subject (and a "what"-clause as the object, too).

The use of "that" in this way is not at all the same thing as the often-dispensible relative pronoun "that," which is the one that J-school types have an allergy to.

Clause fronting, which is what the linguists call the phenomenon you've noticed, is a device that helps draw attention to the content of the clause. It's one tool in a good writer's kit, but as with any writing device, it can be overused.

(I'm the editor of Copyediting newsletter and a usage specialist.)

Professor Tarr said...

Hey, Wanda... sorry about that.

The book was published in 2001 by Disney Editions and is called "The Hand Behind the Mouse: an intimate biography of Ub Iwerks". I had a lot of fun doing it as I got to interview 250+ animators, directors, and technicians from the golden age of animation.

I also had some really talented folks working with me - my co-author Leslie Iwerks was nominated for an OSCAR for her documentary short, "recycled life" (if you have a chance to see it, do.) And Leonard Maltin is an absolute saint. Sanctus Leonardus. The editor, Wendy Lefkon was brilliant and helped form a really necessary book in the lore of Disney history.

Sorry for the diversion.

It is certainly true that I love this grammatical discussion though. WEndalyn, you should have your own blog, sister!

(And I am glad that Ty is not to be an integral component of the show... whew...)

Scott said...

Thanks to Nathan's entry here, I watched "The Bachelor" last night. Oh, dear. Is there a more heaping pile of disingenuous blather anywhere on TV? I despair for humanity in general, and I watch "Rock of Love: Charm School"!

;^)

Anonymous said...

It's like putting salt on food, a little is okay but too much leaves a bad taste.

Morgan

Justus M. Bowman said...

It's hard work to cut out that.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

That you haven't yet mentioned the fact that your blog is nominated again in the 2008 weblog awards, demonstrates reserve and modesty.

http://2008.weblogawards.org/polls/best-literature-blog/

Ulysses said...

Re: That.

Can you use it at the beginning of a sentence? Sure.

Should you? If you have a definite stylistic reason, then yes. If the approach aids clarity or emphasizes some point, yes. If it's pretty, or you don't know what you're doing, no.

Ulysses said...

It occurs to me that the same rationale I give above should be applied to any writing.

Or for that matter, opening one's mouth in public.

Word verification: quied.
It's not a word, but it should be.

Professor Tarr said...

"That the synoptic texts of the gospels were based upon one unified - if unknown - source, is a subject of pure conjecture." Quistin quied quiptically.

Anonymous said...

That new Bachelor is dreamy...

;0)

Bee said...

That you would feel compelled to ask the question shows that there are lots of people who do that--start a sentence with "that". That shows the continual degradation of the English language, and I don't like that. That being said, I suspect that that will continue to show up a lot in modern writing. How's that?

Kristina said...

Oh wow! That I read this when I did was so perfectly timed! I was just about to send a query letter including a sentence beginning with "that". How I thank you! I may have turned the agent off with it.

Scott said...

This has probably already been covered 20 times over, but let's make it 21...

THAT as a conj.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:
1. Used to introduce a noun clause that is usually the subject or object of a verb or a predicate nominative:
"That contemporary American English is exuberantly vigorous is undeniable" (William Arrowsmith).

From the OED:
1.a. Introducing a dependent substantive-clause, as subject, object, or other element of the principal clause, or as complement of a n. or adj., or in apposition with a n. therein.
"That I remaine in fielde it is to me greate fame." (William Painter -- 1567)

It's a perfectly acceptable usage, and it's been around a long time.

Nikk Duncan said...

I can't say I've thought much about it. I don't use it often, but in a round of edits I'm doing on one of my stories I did find this...

But blame him? No. That I lay squarely at your feet.

Kevin said...

Starting a sentence with "that" is appropriate when it is a shortened substitute of "the fact that."

Nona said...

"That there are so many reality TV fans lurking about on a literature blog is a bit distressing. Shouldn't we be WRITING instead of immersing ourselves in the worst of the worst on the tube?"

Sure, we should be writing and we are writing. At least I am . . . I also happen to be reading four books at once right at this very moment. Three out of the four are memoir.

"Bach" is about heart. It's about emotion, it's about love and loss and caring about a "character" and getting wrapped up in what happens to him.

This tv show is one of the best lessons about "writing" there is.

anne said...

That y'all should spend so much time on one word and how to use it is stunning.

We are blessed with new words all the time. It is good to keep a variety--old and new. Stunning is a new word as of late. It's a goodie.

I caught my use of "that" in my article and stumbled. But I decided to keep it. I was very conscious of what I was doing at the time, so I suppose it was intentional and purposeful.
I will never think of that in the same way.

Alana Roberts said...

This is a construction which can be used to make complex argumentation clearer. The phrase beginning with 'that' functions as a noun which can then be discussed in the rest of the sentence.

It doesn't have much place in fiction unless the hero or heroine is giving a stinging retort in a heated argument.

Related Posts with Thumbnails