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.