That Word

“But there is nevertheless great value in knowing the that…” —Jacques Barzun

I merely borrow a line from cultural historian Barzun (1907-2012) because it contains the word “that.” And “that,” ladies and gentlemen, is what I’d like to touch on today. In context he refers to some of the deeper undercurrents of understanding, experience and wisdom to be found when studying history (something of which I am a hearty proponent). That is to what the that in that sentence refers.

Use your words

Bob Goff’s excellent Love Does includes a brief mention of why we shouldn’t use the word “that” in writing. Citing an admonition from his friend Donald Miller (whom I haven’t read), he says the word “that” is one to avoid. And while he also says that Miller didn’t give an explanation as to why, he admits that maybe, grammatically, there could be times that call for its use. Its main usage—the usage Goff (and Miller) decry in Love Does—is a pronoun referring to (or else one that modifies) the antecedent. The antecedent, if you didn’t already know, is whatever object or thing that was mentioned previously. Now, I understand what he’s saying and in all honesty, since having read that chapter in Love Does (How else can I say it?), I’ve come to see and avoid an unnecessary usage of the word “that.” That being said, there are times, as Goff alluded to and that I acknowledge as well, that “that” is necessary, in my opinion.

A quick example. Say I wanted a sentence to help explain why “that” was unnecessary. How 'bout this? There’s a word that you should avoid using unnecessarily—even to the point of looking out for it and omitting it should you find yourself having inserted it in a sentence or thought. Did you know that the first part of the former sentence would have read a little smoother had “that” not been there? Here: There’s a word you should avoid using unnecessarily… Read through it again without “that” and you’ll see what I mean. Simple as that.

“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” (Ephesians 4:29)

Use someone else’s words

As if there were always a falsification or counterpoint to every utterance expressed under the sun, turn over with me to a certain edition of the seminal, exceptional, essential Christian classic The Practice of the Presence of God. A brief backstory: translated from the French, Brother Lawrence’s story is one of humble simplicity and extraordinary holy power. Herein is a man who loved and knew God and walked with him day by day, moment by moment and formed a highly unique relationship with the Lord of Creation whilst making meals and cleaning pots and pans in the little monastery kitchen where he spent the rest of his life. This, after finding out that military service wasn’t for him. The first part of the book (at least the 1967 Revell/Spire paperback edition) is his Conversations. It is not abundantly clear who’s conversing with Brother Lawrence but in each Conversation (there are six) the speaker lists the initial topic. Then, strangely enough, each paragraph beyond begins with the word “That.” Unconventional as it may be, the individual who is conversing with Bro. Lawrence is using “that” to refer back to what the original paragraph stated. Herein—while the usage may be a tad different than the one decried by Goff and Miller—it is essential and even archaic by today’s lexical and literary standards. I love it though (same reason I love the King James Version) because it makes me think. I somehow intuit through the spirit and character of the book that something of note, of worth—something perhaps lost to the modern age—is herein. The word “that,” in this instance, doing right by me and, by extension, my retention and comprehension.

A quick aside, what the editor (or translator) of this edition of The Practice of the Presence of God is using is something known as an elliptical sentence. “That”, in this case, referring to the antecedent and by the end of the Conversation something the reader must keep in view. I assure you that it’s worth reading on.

In closing, may I re-present my recommendation for utilizing what influences are available to you (that God is no doubt using to bless you; remember: I took Miller and Goff’s rule to heart) but then respecting history (Barzun is worth reading as well) and seeing if maybe, just maybe there’s a good reason to forge your own creative path and make it work for you. For crying out loud! It’s not until you truly understand (and respect) a rule that you can bend, or in some cases break it.

“I will worship toward Thy holy temple, and praise Thy name for Thy lovingkindness and for Thy truth: for Thou hast magnified Thy word above all Thy name.” (Psalm 138:2, emphasis mine)

Keep Jesus and view and don’t forget to keep writing! God bless you. 


Stands for Something (The Spectrum of Idolatry part 8)