A Word, Please: Relatives that can easily be dropped

September 03, 2013|By June Casagrande | By June Casagrande

I got a great question from a reader named Bill in Florida. He asked about the following sentence, which I wrote in a recent column: "If I were to write that coffee smells good, I wouldn't hear a word about it."

Bill's question had to do with the word "that." He pointed out how "that" could have been omitted from the sentence entirely.

"What is the function (or purpose) of the word 'that' in the sentence?" Bill asked. "A structure of this form appears quite frequently and just uses up extra space whenever it is used."


Here's what I like about this question: To discern whether a usage is OK, Bill starts by asking about its function.

A lot of people seem to think grammar works like a penal code — a list of prohibitions that form a narrow line you must walk in order to be correct. But to me, grammar is more interesting than that. It's about understanding the mechanics of a sentence — how all the inner springs and gears work together to create meaning. And in this case, the gear in question is something called a relative pronoun.

The relative pronouns are "that," "which," "who" and "whom." Like many words, these can all sometimes function as other parts of speech too. For example, "that" can be a subject pronoun: "That is fantastic." But in sentences like the one Bill asked about, it's a relative pronoun.

A relative pronoun introduces something called a relative clause. The job of a relative clause is to "post-modify" a noun. That just means it comes after a noun to modify it. In "The house that we bought is yellow," the relative clause "that we bought" modifies the noun "house." In "The man who works hardest will get the promotion," the relative clause "who works hardest" describes the noun "man."

Bill wanted to know whether the relative pronoun "that" should be dropped from my sentence. It certainly could be. "The music I like" is a more efficient way of saying "The music that I like." But in fact, even when you drop "that," it's still there in spirit. "I like" is still a relative clause in this sentence, and it carries an implied "that" even if I don't use it.

There's even a term for the practice of dropping the "that." It's called the "zero relative."

So when should you use the zero relative — that is, when should you drop "that"? Whenever you think it works best.

Sometimes the "that" at the head of a relative clause is helpful in understanding the sentence.

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