It’s not always obvious to a writer when s/he has over-used a word or phrase. S/he can read, reread, and read a manuscript over and over again, and still, it’s not coming up as a red flag. This, of course, is where fresh eyes can help. Try two things before passing over to your beta reader/editor/proofreader. Firstly, do a search for the word/phrase you suspect might have overstayed its welcome. Click on ‘Find’ on your toolbar (in Word) and a little list on the left-hand side will tell you how many times you’ve used it. You can then navigate to each instance. Secondly, read the sentence in which it has been used…out loud. And that overused word will suddenly, loudly, clangingly, resonate in your head.
that. An everyday word we use unconsciously. Useful? Yes, of course. Essential? No, not always. How can we eliminate the overuse?
I decided on Tuesday that that day I wouldn’t go to that new dress shop that Jane told me about because I heard that there was a traffic jam in the high street .
Yes, a bit of an exaggeration, I know, but I have—believe it not—come across some rather severe (quite possibly terminal) cases of that-itis.
This same sentence could read just as happily, thus:
I decided on Tuesday I wouldn’t go to the new dress shop Jane told me about because I heard there was a traffic jam in the high street.
That is a demonstrative pronoun and a relative pronoun, but it should be avoided when referring to a person. That is for objects, who/whom is for people. When used for objects, that can be replaced with which. The latter will make the ensuing clause a non-restrictive one.
The restaurant that has just opened serves food all day.
The restaurant, which has just opened, serves food all day.
So, examine the phrases where that has occurred. You may have used it in phrases, such as:
I realised that…
I considered that…
I knew that…
I wished that…
I said that…
I told him that…
Read these instances out loud. Does the sentence sound better or still make sense without that? It probably will.
I knew (that) it was Monday because it’s the day (that) the local paper is delivered.
I didn’t consider (that) it was necessary to take an umbrella, as the weatherman said (that) there was no danger of rain.
John said that he would go to work and that he would go to the gym at six o’clock.
In this case there are two parts of the sentence relying on the antecedent ‘John said’. Therefore, that runs as a pair. If the sentence had merely been:
John said (that) he would go to work.
…that is not required.
Most of the time, you can rely on your judgement and/or personal preference. Considering the sentence for just a minute longer can often highlight the need (or not). For example:
Jessica announced on Monday she had just been offered the job she really wanted.
In this instance that would help clarify the sentence. As it stands, did she announce the fact on Monday, or did she get offered the job on Monday? You don’t want your reader to have to work it out.
Jessica announced on Monday that she had just been offered the job she really wanted.
Too many thats can suggest you may be trying to ‘pad’ your work. Using that isn’t incorrect, but it may be unnecessary: don’t go mad and delete all of them in your work—some are essential (but do avoid a double that, as in the exaggerated example above).
Keep reading that sentence out loud until you’re happy that there’s no room for misunderstanding and that the words flow.