‘That’ and how you use it

Posted on November 14, 2010


I was reading this tweet when I realised that the fact I was taught Latin as a child had altered my perception of how you write English. Take a look at it:

Agree? “@nickbilton: The idea of a Facebook email service sounds utterly frightful, but email is so very broken, I’m all ears.”

To me, even though you’re constrained by Twitter’s 140 character limit, there’s an important connecting word missing from that sentence. It’s “that”, and it should be put in place of the final comma in the sentence. “But email is so very broken that I’m all ears” sounds right to me. It’s a completed sentence, a finished journey. Nick Bilton has said he thinks email isn’t fit for purpose: the result is that he’s happy to hear alternatives. But to most people “email is so very broke, I’m all ears” is probably fine. To me it’s lacking what in Latin would be “ut” – “that”, “in order that” or “so that”, a purpose or final clause.

Not to get boring, but in Latin it’s used with the present or imperfect subjunctive to denote an aim or a purpose; like its name suggests (and as I’ve said in the paragraph above), it gives a finality to the sentence it’s used in.

Take a look at the first sentence of this blog again. Look at the “that” placed right in the middle of the sentence, connecting the initial action (“reading this tweet”) with the final outcome (“the fact I was taught Latin as a child had altered my perception of how you write English”). I was reading with the purpose – though not intended – that I would realise how Latin changes my thoughts on language.

It’s a problem though – especially when using Twitter, or on a strict word count for an article. The insistence that using “that”s makes the sentence more readable means [that] there is a great number of “that”s strewn around my writing, where some people would be fine without them. To me, “means there” in the previous sentence doesn’t read as well; it isn’t as clear. But I could be wrong, and be too tied to my Latinate phrasing. English after all is a million miles away from the language the Romans wrote (which itself is at least a few hundred miles away from the language they spoke), and it’s constantly evolving all the time. Texting, Twitter and general conversation means [that] we don’t have the same corpus of words and the same usage day-on-day.

Does the appearance of “that” in sentences seem a neccessity to you? Or does it not even matter? Let me know via the comments.

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