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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: That’s The Ticket or Is It?

 

By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor

 

We’ve covered that vs. which, but let’s address that in more detail.

The Downton Abbey episode that I watched was riveting.

The Downton Abbey episode I watched was riveting.

Both sentences above are accurate, demonstrating that sometimes that can be discretionary. Some rules of thumb:

That can introduce a dependent clause, but only if it improves read-ability. You can leave it out, provided you don’t miss anything by omitting it. In the example above, you have both the economy of words and proper flow without that. Reading sentences aloud will help inform whether to keep that.

That can also usually be omitted when the dependent clause follows a form of said or similar speech or thought verbs.

The judge said he had issued the order.

However, when a time element is included, that usually helps.

The judge said Monday that he had issued the order.

That is also helpful after verbs like advocate, contend, declare and estimate.

The public defender declared that his client was innocent.
That is required before clauses beginning with conjunctions like after, although, because, before and until.

Fred said that after he learned of his client’s background, he offered to represent him pro bono.

Similarly, keep that to avoid ambiguity.

Rachel maintained Jill’s lawn is drying out.

Without that, maintained could be interpreted as mows or as having an opinion.

Rachel maintained that Jill’s lawn is drying out.

Likewise:

The rumor Matthew started taking drugs…

At first, it appears that Matthew started the rumor. Keep that.

The rumor that Matthew started taking drugs...

As always, be mindful of parallel construction principles.

Ella remembered she had turned the oven on and that she had a lunch date.

Ella remembers two things, but the sentence incorrectly has just one that.

Whenever you’re deciding whether to keep an optional that, consider both flow and word efficiency.


 

A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.

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