(Originally published Dec. 27, 2006).
Last week, I invented a new verb: De-that: Removal of redundant and over-used that’s in a manuscript; close relative to its ugly cousin, de-which.
It all began during my second round of edits. After a chapter or two, I noticed my editor’s seemingly random replacement of the word that with which in several places of my manuscript. What’s going on? I asked myself, scratching my head and whipping out my trusty “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. For a day and a half, I puzzled over the obscure descriptions, conducted additional Internet research on the mystery, pooled friends’ opinions, and, finally, fired off an e-mail to my editor for confirmation of my findings.
You guessed it. THERE ARE RULES for the correct usage and punctuation of that and which. Furthermore, the words are not interchangeable. Who knew? Besides my brilliant and perceptive editor and, perhaps, some of you grammar experts out there.
Although, Dear Reader, I am sure you have better things to do with your time between Christmas and New Year than read a grammar lesson, I would like to share these rules with you. If you read on, I promise you will become a grammatically enlightened person.
THAT: Is used when the clause following it is essential or instructional (requires no comma). e.g. Sell the book that you read last week.
WHICH: Is used when the clause following it is an additional thought containing descriptive information and is not essential (always requires delineating punctuation). e.g. He bought a book, which was a trade paperback.
Next, I did a global search of my document and located exactly 1,241 that’s and 36 which’s. To confirm my worst fears, I scanned two chapters of a Nora Roberts novel and found no that’s. Not a single one. None. Nada.
Hmmmmm. The situation was worse than I had thought. Now, don’t get me wrong. The correct usage of that and which is fine. Constant usage, however, indicates a distressing lack of variety in sentence structure, not to mention a regrettable tendency towards telling, not showing.
Thus armed, I reviewed my entire manuscript and tried to eliminate as many “that’s” and “which’s” as possible by re-wording sentences, eliminating phrases, and tightening the prose.
My pre-Christmas week consisted of four days of intensive hair tearing and re-writing, but it was worth it. I pared down my that’s to a measly count of 622. I believe my de-thatted manuscript is a vast improvement over the original.
I hope my editor agrees.