03 March 2010

That That Is Is That That Is Not Is Not

One of my favorite movies when I was a bit younger was Charly, loosely based on Daniel Keyes’ short story and novel “Flowers for Algernon”.

We used to teach “Flowers for Algernon” in high school freshman and sophomore English classes. I think political correctness has banned it from the student experience as I haven’t seen it in a lit text book in many years.

To the point, during one scene in the movie, Charly Gordon the scientists stand Charly in front of a chalk board and give him a grammatical problem to solve and to gage his IQ.

Charly has an IQ of 68 and has been chosen as a human guinea pig for a new drug designed to increase human intelligence and do away with mental retardation. (Yes, Stephen King ripped off the story in his “Lawnmower Man”.)

Here’s the grammatical problem that so frustrated the slow-witted Charly:

that that is is that that
is not is not is that
it it is

When he first sees it, Charly has no clue what the hell he’s supposed to do let alone what the words mean.

Neither did the audience—including a 13-year-old me.

And “that” is the subject of this Self-Editing 101.

Writers, both experienced and neophyte, use the word “that” as though they are paid extra for every “that” thrown into a sentence.

As with “to Be”, “that” is overused and often abused.

Okay, here’s the real boring part: reminding you how the word “that” functions in an English sentence—in other words, Grammar Time:

Use “that”

1. to introduce a restrictive clause
2. as a demonstrative pronoun
3. as a complementizer


1. Restrictive clause = I saw two movies yesterday: one that was exciting and the other one that was boring.
2. Demonstrative Pronoun = That was excellent. (referring to the movie)
3. Complementizer = I hope that you bring your books and pencil to class.

Now, open up any three pages of your latest opus and do a “Crtl+F”.

Type “that” in the “Find what:” window and hit “Highlight” and then click on “Highlight All”. (I’m assuming you’re using a version of MS-Word. Open Office also has this feature.)

Does your text glow with the yellow highlight?

Each of the above examples is a perfectly well-written and grammatically correct English sentence.

However, if these three sentences appeared one after the other, the use of “that” becomes annoying and numbing to the mind.

Readers—especially our modern, text-driven readers— don’t read sentences so much as “skip” through sentences.

Complicated, long, rambling, and wordy sentences may demonstrate the writer’s cleverness of language, but such sentences numb today’s harried reader.

Redundancies of semi-ambiguous words such as “that” have the same effect.

Using “that” so often is also another example of the lazy writing habits often accepted by teachers, editors, writers, and readers.

Each of the three examples can be written and read with understanding without “that”:

1. I saw two movies yesterday: an exciting one and a boring one.
2. The movie was excellent.
3. I hope you bring your books and pencils to class.

Look at all those yellow highlighted “that”s in your manuscript. Take out as many as possible or even rewrite sentences to tighten up your sentences while keeping your meaning clear and precise.

The hardest “that” to get rid of is the “that” used as the Demonstrative Pronoun, and you shouldn’t, really, especially in character dialogue.

Demonstrative Pronouns are necessary and not as evilly overused as the Restrictive and Complentizer Pronouns. The Demonstrative Pronouns include “that”, “this”, “which”, and “who” (as well as their plurals).

Demonstrative and Personal Pronouns prevent passages such as the following:

I like Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane is an excellent movie. Citizen Kane inspired me to write stories in a non-linear style. I recommend everyone not only see Citizen Kane but read the screenplay Citizen Kane as well.


I like Citizen Kane. That is an excellent movie. It inspired me to write stories in a non-linear style. I recommend everyone only see Citizen Kane but read its screen play as well.

Charly is quite a sad story and movie. I finally understood the meaning of the word “catharsis” after seeing that movie. I even found and read the book, which saddened me even more.

At one point in the story, I am cheering for Charly. After a few weeks on the “smart” drug, he confronts the chalkboard and its enigmatic grammatical message.

Without hesitation, he solves the grammatical problem and walks away, leaving the scientists in awe of his dramatic increase in intelligence:

that that is is that that
is not is not is that
it it is

That, that is, is. That, that
is not, is not. Is that
it? It is.

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