Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

That Misleading "That"

Stan Carey, a professional editor from Ireland, writes entertainingly about the English language on his blog Sentence First. Here Stan warns of the perilous ambiguity that can result from incautious use of the word that.

A story in The Observer earlier this week had a sentence that shows the importance of care in using the word that:

Assange insisted there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.

Because that follows no evidence but not insisted, the later thats — before WikiLeaks and implied in "and [that WikiLeaks had] taken great care" — can serve false interpretations. Taken at face value, the line could be telling us that Assange insisted the following:

(1) there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk;
(2) there was no evidence that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back; and
(3) there was no evidence that WikiLeaks had taken great care not to put people at risk.

Yet only the first of these was intended; the others are contrary to Assange's claims. Most readers will intuit from context the obvious meaning, but some may be misled. I don't know how easily — for native readers, perhaps only by deliberate misreading. The and after risk is, crucially, not or. For comparison, though, see how the line reads with an extra that in the opening clause:

Assange insisted [that] there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.

without either that:

Assange insisted there was no evidence anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.

and with the other that instead (and a clarifying comma):

Assange insisted that there was no evidence anyone had been put at risk, and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and had taken great care not to put people at risk.

Given the options, and the story's sensitivity, the potential for ambiguity ought to have been noticed and eliminated. It wouldn't have been difficult. The third alternative above, for example, would have been clearer. Better and simpler again, the sentence could have been divided in two:

Assange insisted there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk. He said that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and had taken great care not to put people at risk.

There's a lot of leeway in which thats should be retained and which can be omitted. This leeway has its limits, though, as the Observer's line and two of my previous posts demonstrate.


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Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday August 5th 2010, 6:07 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Without being guided by context, the sentence was tortuous. You picked it well. The sequence of improvements you presented really bring the mistake out--and correct it unequivocally. The limping that results from failed parallelism comes up often on the New York Times grammar blog, as it did here, through an example similar to the one you quoted (with a missing "that").
Thursday August 5th 2010, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Very good article - thanks!

To avoid these convoluted verbal messes, a careful writer will often reorder the elements. For example, the offending sentence could be remodeled into this structure:

Assange insisted that Wikileaks had held sensitive information back and had taken great care not to put people at risk, and that there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk.

I agree with the person who said that it's not enough that a statement is clear enough that it can be understood - it has to be so clear that it cannot be misunderstood.
Thursday August 5th 2010, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Anonymous: Yes, the line was awkwardly constructed. Faulty or slipshod parallelism is quite common in writing, but I still tend to be surprised when I see examples in reputable publications.

Kristine: You're welcome! Reordering is another option, as you've ably shown, though my instinct would be to make two sentences out of the original one. A text's intelligibility lies on a sliding scale; the potential for misunderstanding can't be eliminated, but it can certainly be minimised. Maybe in this case the editors were in a hurry.
Thursday August 5th 2010, 5:16 PM
Comment by: Luis (York, MD)
Thank you, Mr Carey. As a non-native English speaker, I had always been mystified about the correct use or omission of the word "that". Your article has made clear to me that "There's a lot of leeway in which thats should be retained and which can be omitted. This leeway has its limits..."

The guideline, as I understood it, is to use it as needed to write clear and understandable text.

Again, thank you.

Luis
Thursday August 5th 2010, 8:45 PM
Comment by: Walter C. (Lawrence, KS)
Are periods an endangered species?
Friday August 6th 2010, 7:42 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Luis: You're welcome. I hope to write more general guidelines on this matter sometime. That is often left out of news headlines to save space, and from ordinary prose to make it snappier. The important thing is to be mindful of how it's used and to try to avoid miscuing readers.

Walter: Not yet, thank goodness.
Friday August 6th 2010, 11:09 AM
Comment by: Lindsay R.
Being fond of parallelism myself for the elegance with which it allows complex ideas to arrange themselves neatly within a single sentence, I simply avoid including third or fourth 'thats' that do not contribute to the structuring of that parallelism:

'Assange insisted that there was no evidence anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk'

On the other hand, I find parallel constructions much more effective with contrasting or reinforcing verbs:

'Assange insisted that there was no evidence anyone had been put at risk and explained that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk'
Tuesday August 10th 2010, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
"Assange insisted there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk."

I read that with the explained correct meaning with no problems. I guess the parallelism of the main verbs 'held' and 'taken' after the auxilliary 'had' helped me. Without that, I'd have read it as shown.

Winston Churchill's speeches give great examples of the power of parallel structure.

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