Saturday, June 14, 2008

To use or not to use that

Grammar Girl has a good post on when to leave out "that". To quickly summarize, a writer can leave out that when it is not needed or when it becomes confusing such as two thats close together. But she notes that sometimes that is necessary for understanding the sentence. Consider her explanation and example:

Sometimes "That" Is Necessary

Now, there are several cases when a “that” might be necessary. If your sentence already has another “that” or two, you might not want to complicate it more by adding yet another “that” (3). One of the sentences above falls into this category. I said, “Some people think adding ‘that’ improves the flow of the sentence.” I could have also said, “Some people think THAT adding ‘that’ improves the flow of the sentence,” but I thought two cases of “that” would be a bit much.

Another time you should consider using a “that” is when your sentence could be ambiguous or misunderstood. Steven Pinker, a linguist, warns about what he calls “garden path sentences” (4). These are sentences that seem to mean one thing but then turn out to mean something else. Sometimes, keeping a “that” can help you avoid such problematic sentences. Pinker explains, “These are called garden path sentences, because their first words lead the listener ‘up the garden path’ to an incorrect analysis.”

Here an example of a sentence that leads the reader down the wrong path when you omit the word “that”:

Aardvark maintains Squiggly's yard is too big.

Without a “that,” the reader is initially led to believe that Aardvark maintains, as in mows, Squiggly's yard. If you add in a “that,” it's clear from the beginning that Aardvark just has an opinion.

Aardvark maintains that Squiggly's yard is too big

Pinker goes on to say that garden path sentences are “one of the hallmarks of bad writing” because readers have to wend their way back to the beginning of the sentence to figure out its meaning.

It is sometimes tricky to know if your sentence is ambiguous because you, the writer, know what you mean. I always find it useful to put aside my work for a while and then read it again with fresh eyes. You could also consider having a friend or colleague read over your work.

I find the guidelines here very helpful and clearly explained. The concern for clarity should always be primary in deciding what to write. I also like the point about getting a second opinion or putting the text aside for a while and coming back with fresh eyes.
This post on that differs from my earlier post because my post concerned a situation when that actually was a the subject of a new sentence.

Friday, June 13, 2008

What as an object

I saw this word combination in a paragraph I was reading:

"to know what is the meaning."

This is not a correct structure at least in the sentence was used in, which unfortunately I did not record. The phrasing here is not correct because "what" is not the subject of the clause after "to know". "What" is the object in this clause.

In other words, the clause has a subject, "the meaning", so it would be structured as "the meaning is what". In English, we can put the object question word in front of the subject when putting it in a relative clause. Consequently, we write
what[object] the meaning [subject] is [verb].

If we put these same words in an independent clause, they would either form a sentence, "the meaning is what" that would probably be concluded with a question mark, as in, "The meaning is what?" This particular sentence would probably express surprise with an emphasis on what.
Another way we can use these words in a simple sentence is as "What is the meaning?" which is structured like other "what" questions such as "What is your name?" or "What is the address?" in which the object comes before the verb.
To sum up, in the construction from the student's paper, the phrasing is incorrect because the object, "what", is being used in the subject place when it is not the subject.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Word sites

Lifehacker has a page "Best Online Language Tools for Word Nerds" that word lovers will enjoy, but it also looks useful for language learners. The article includes the already mentioned VisuWords along with definr a site for a suggest-as-you-type dictionary, a confusing words site, and a site for the Firefox add-on for pronunciation. It is a good place to start finding new resources for improving a person's vocabulary.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Visuwords is a good site for exploring words. It is similar to a thesaurus, but instead of a list of words, an image is generated with related words.

This looks like a useful site for expanding vocabulary since English has so many words that have similar meanings. However, for second language learners, it is important to double check the meanings in a dictionary.