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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Newspaper reader Have you noticed that announcers on the radio often screen the word that out of their reports? Initial ambiguities force the listener to decide upon the meaning, rather than perceive it clearly as the sentences proceed. Two of a number of examples I have collected: The Saudi group "demanded U.S. troops be removed" (the group wants U.S. troops -- oh, no, it doesn't). "He doubts many members would like it" (first he doubts the members, then their preference).

Richard Wendell Fogg
Baltimore, Md.

I've noticed an increased use of the word that, encountering it so often, in fact, that it has begun to irritate me. Would not the sentence "Mr. Smith advised me that he would be departing next weekend and that he would return the following weekend" be better stated in this manner: "Mr. Smith advised me he would depart next weekend and return the following weekend"? Is there a rule of grammar or syntax covering this point?

Louis Candell
Manlius, N.Y.
Discuss this feature in the Language forum of Post & Riposte.
See an index of previous Word Courts and other articles by Barbara Wallraff.
I have received other letters, too, about that in its role as a conjunction, in which it typically connects a subordinate clause to a main one. Mr. Candell, you'll want to know that by a margin of four to one my correspondents wish they saw or heard more of these thats, not fewer.

The magic of that is that at the same time it connects, it puts a bit of distance between two elements of Newspaper readera sentence, a neat trick that often comes in handy. As Mr. Fogg's examples illustrate, sometimes one wants to make clear that the object of the verb is the whole clause and not the noun at the start of the clause, and that does this job with a minimum of fuss. Or one may want to put the distance between two (or more) subordinate clauses that express very different ideas. In the "Mr. Smith" sentences of Mr. Candell's, one that (after "Mr. Smith advised me") is surely enough, and I don't mind the version in which there are none at all. But I would add two to "Mr. Smith advised me he would depart next weekend and the roses need pruning," to make manifest that Mr. Smith advised me of two things, and disparate things at, well, that.

Where to prune that is either where ideas are closely related, as they are in the first "Mr. Smith" example, or where multiple thats begin to sound like a drumbeat: "He said that he had advised me that the departure that he planned ..."

Shame on you. When I turned to Word Court in the November Atlantic, I was shocked to read the sentence "This isn't something that we can blame President Clinton for" in your response to one of the questions. Unless you like to leave participles dangling, the sentence would have been more properly worded "This isn't something for which we can blame President Clinton."

Please be more careful of your own writing and the editing of your column. You do set an example for proper English usage in this grammatically challenged society of which we are all a part.

Scott Rupp
St. Paul, Minn.

Now, hold on. "Shame on you" is considered polite discourse where you come from?

Oops. I mean, Now, on hold. "Shame on you" is considered polite discourse from where you come?

What's more (sorry, but you started this), that's no dangling participle; aren't you, rather, objecting to my having ended the sentence with a preposition? If so, kindly have a look at Fowler's Modern English Usage (any of the three editions), or Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer, or The American Heritage Dictionary, or pretty much any reputable usage guide, under "preposition at end" or "preposition," and see if this doesn't change your point of view. Good writers throughout the history of English -- from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Alison Lurie and David Lodge -- have not shrunk from ending clauses or sentences with prepositions. It isn't something that we should go out of our way to do, but if the alternatives that come readily to mind seem stilted, there's no reason to go out of our way to avoid doing it, either.

Newspaper reader What is the proper term for someone who makes hats? My female friend insists on milliner; I prefer haberdasher. Is there a gender-neutral term for someone who designs hats for males and females alike?

Daniel Arbelaez
Cambridge, Mass.

How about hatter?

Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@TheAtlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthlymagazine.

Illustrations by Terry Colon

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; Word Court; Volume 281, No. 3; page 120.

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