In five years of University I have probably attended close to 600 classes. Like anything I have done in life I can usually remember the important bits of information, but a lot of the stuff I learned at school has fallen into the recesses of my mind – where I can hopefully find them when I need them.
Fortunately for me, I do remember two classes and they were my first and my last. Like any good journey the last class ended with a big show. It was a class where a group of pre-service teachers spent time talking about their greatest experiences with one another through video, slideshows, song, etc.
My first class, on the other hand, is another story altogether. The class was called Mass Communications and the professor, who we will call Prof. L, was the most experienced and decorated at the University. He came into the room with a rather large stack of papers and proceeded to hand them out to the class. After receiving his 20-page syllabus I was wondering if I had just walked into “Intimidation 101.”
We began the process of reading through the syllabus and we stopped on the word “vernacular” a word with many definitions, but roughly means the use of a wide variety of words and how they are understood by different people. I think he wanted us to understand this word because as we continued on our journey through our undergrad we would come across new words we would have to understand and adapt to our own writing if we wanted to be successful in Media Studies.
Upon leaving class he gave us our first assignment. We were asked, if I can remember correctly, to write a one-page assignment about who we were. To give you a small taste of our dear Prof. L when a student asked about the length of the assignment (and all assignments to come) he would answer, “as short as possible and as long as necessary.”
I went home and worked frivolously on my assignment and handed it in the following week and waited another week to receive my mark. I have self-titled Prof. L’s third class “The Bloodshed.” Seeing the faces of my fellow classmates looking at their marks made me think twice if I really deserved to be at University. When I finally received my paper I was relieved to see a great big seven at the bottom – not too high, not too low, right where I needed to be.
I decided to talk to Prof. L after class to ask what I needed to do to improve on my mark. At the time I thought it was the worst decision of my life, but as I grow older I realize even though I may have felt inferior at the time all learning is a process – good or bad.
What I found interesting about the corrections was his critique of the word “that.” It was the first word Prof. L picked out and he wrote down the comment, “does this really need to be here?”
Years later as I continue with my education and writing I realize I use the word “that” quite frequently, but couldn’t really explain to someone what it meant if they were to ask. Like any good student I turned to the dictionary and this is what I found:
There is widespread ignorance about how to use that as a relative pronoun, and two common that- errors are so severe that teachers, editors, and other high-end readers will make unkind judgments about you if you commit them. The first is to use which when you need that. Writers who do this usually think the two relative pronouns are interchangeable but that which makes you look smarter. They aren't, and it doesn't. For writers, the abstract rule that that introduces restrictive elements and which introduces nonrestrictive elements is probably less helpful than the following simple test: If there needs to be a comma before the relative pronoun, you need which; otherwise, you need that. *Examples: We have a massive SUV that we purchased on credit last month; The massive SUV, which we purchased on credit last month, seats us ten feet above any other driver on the road. The second error, even more common, is worse. It's using that when you really need who or whom. Examples: She is the girl that he's always dreamed of; Daddy promised the air rifle to the first one of us that cleaned out the hog pen. There's a basic rule: Who and whom are the relative pronouns for people; that and which are the relative pronouns for everything else. It's true that there's a progressive-type linguistic argument to be made for the thesis that the supposed "error" of using that with people is in fact the first phase of our language evolving past the who/that distinction, since a universal that is simpler and would allow English to dispense with the whole subject- who-vs.-object- whom thing. This sort of argument is interesting in theory; ignore it in practice. The truth is that, as of now, misusing that for who or whom, whether in writing or speech, functions as a kind of class marker—it's the grammatical equivalent of wearing NASCAR paraphernalia or liking pro wrestling. If you think this last assertion too snooty or extreme, please be informed that the hideous old PTL Club' s initials actually stood for "People That Love."
(I wonder how much this person got paid per word)
While there is much confusion about how to use “that” I started to realize I could write without using the word at all. I began to look back over all my sentences and would either omit or replace the word “that” with something else and found I didn’t loose the meaning of the sentence at all. After this big speech about our “vernacular” it turns out the most important lesson I learned from Prof. L was how to remove a specific word from my written work.
Try it out for yourself and see if you need to use that word “that.”