1. stargazer
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    stargazer New Member

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    Question about "That" and "Then"

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by stargazer, Feb 9, 2011.

    Greetings,
    I am a new writer. I recently finished a manuscript and realized I use "that" and "then" heavily in my writing. They each had over 400 occurrences in a 60,000 word document.
    Do you have any tips on how I can avoid using them so often? Am I rushing in my writing?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks.
     
  2. Terry D
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    Terry D Active Member

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    That is an interesting question. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself!) Your question is an interesting one. It may well be that you are rushing your writing, or are trying to make your writer's voice sound conversational. In spoken English many of us use the words 'that' and 'then' frequently. They are like little shortcuts to get us from one idea to the next in as few words as possible. They are very general words, but in conversation we can get by with being general because we have body language and context to rely on to make our meaning clear. We also have a live person who can promt us for more information if our point is not clear. In our writing we need to be sure we choose specific words to carry our meaning.

    Gabriel cleaned his room then went outside.

    After cleaning his room, Gabriel decided to go outside.

    The house that sat on the top of the hill was thought to be haunted.

    Sitting on top of the hill like a vulture, the house was thought to be haunted.
     
  3. zaffy
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    zaffy Contributing Member

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    I have just finished reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
    'That' appears in nearly every sentence at least once, and often twice and thrice.
    The word kept leaping off the page at me.
     
  4. stargazer
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    stargazer New Member

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    Thanks for both replies.
    Terry D, I agree with you regarding "speaking" tone. That gave me a new perspective as well as your comment regarding the face-to-face interaction between people. I realize now the importance of setting the scene and not taking shortcuts with "that".
    Thanks- stargazer
     
  5. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Are you maybe trying to micro-manage your characters too much? To borrow an example:
    Gabriel cleaned his room then went outside.
    is actually two phrases:
    Gabriel cleaned his room, and then went outside.
    It could just as well be two sentences:
    Gabriel cleaned his room. He went outside.-- the sequence of events is obvious, no need to use sequencing signals.

    You can fall into the trap of describing every unimportant action minutely:

    Gabriel cleaned his room, and then went outside. He went into the garden and then looked about for somewhere to sit. When he found a bench, he went to it and then sat down. After about five minutes, Mary came out. She hesitated, and then sat down next to him. 'Gabriel, we have to talk,' she said.

    This can be condensed down to something like:

    Gabriel cleaned his room. He went into the garden. Mary came out and sat down next to him. 'Gabriel, we have to talk,' she said.

    Now what you can add to this skeleton of the events is a suggestion of the feelings and motives of the characters, which is much more important and interesting.

    Try and avoid: and, but, then, next, before, after, and others of their ilk. Just because you see them in print doesn't make the habit of over-using them desirable. I've just read 15 pages of 'A Passage to India' without coming across a single 'then' -- and at that point, Forster was describing his character's morning activities, at the same time as keeping up an aggrieved justification by the character of his behaviour in light of his mother's criticism. It is perfectly possible to live a 'then'-free writing life.
     
  6. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Given the graph below - attend to the percentage - it would suggest that the number of 'thats' you have is reasonably in line with common practice. Your use of 'then' seems a little more out of whack. (The graph represents fiction and non-fiction and without thinking about it, I wouldn't like to hazard whether this skews the results to the point where they become useless (for this purpose).

    [​IMG]
     
  7. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Re: that

    It's difficult to say without seeing your writing, but do you use relative clauses a lot? Now (that) you are aware of your overuse of 'that' you can try rewriting some of the constructions if you think (that) they are so frequent the reader may be annoyed. Half the time they are not necessary, so I've put them in brackets,

    e.g.

    The car (that/which) I bought was expensive = I bought a car which was too expensive = I bought an expensive car/I went over budget on my car etc
    This is the thing (that/which) I like best = I like this best

    You notice how they are common with cleft sentences, i.e. instead of:
    I want this
    you write:
    This is the thing (that) I want.
    with the verb at the end, so maybe you are overdoing this construction?
     
  8. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    The use of "then" too much bugs me, because it comes across as the actions being very listed, which is a bit jarring and breaks up the flow, and comes across like a hyperactive kid telling you everything they did that day: "And then we went to the park and then there was a zoo and we went there and then I got candy floss but then daddy fell in the lion enclosure..." :p It presumably won't be SO hyperactive in your writing, but use it more than a couple of times to link actions, and that's all I can think of.

    That, though, is a common word and you shouldn't be worried unless you're using it in an unusual way.
     
  9. stargazer
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    stargazer New Member

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    All,
    Thanks for the great advice. I'm really glad I joined this forum. Lots of good insights here. Thanks again,
    stargazer
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    just don't use them!

    'that' is seldom needed and 'then' makes little to no sense when used to introduce what happens next, because of course it happens 'then' so we don't need to be told that, do we?
     
  11. Reggie
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    Reggie I Like 'Em hot "N Spicy Contributor

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    The only time you use the word "That"is when you are writing a restritive clause (I think, and I'm not an English expert). A restrictive class is where a clause in the sentence modifes a known subject, such as "Jordan Smith," and a limited restrictive clause is where the clause does know the subject' it supposed to modify. "That" is the word you would refer to if it has only one subject or the subject agreement is one. Jordan Smith, who played Basball, faild to hit the gran slam. Or "That ball was stolen."

    I can be wrong on this, and don't take my word for it. I'm not good at English.
     
  12. Terri
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    Terri Senior Member

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    I've found too that when using 'then' we're tending toward telling rather than showing. We don't need the author to tell us what he does next - it causes readers to stumble. Each sentence should stand alone w/ its action.
    As for 'that' I believe it has been covered perfectly.
     
  13. kaylynwrong
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    kaylynwrong Member

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    I think this might be one of the reasons I couldn't get past the first chapter. The writing was too wordy for my tastes. Or it might have just been a poor translation.



    Anyway,

    I think the best way to avoid 'that' and 'then' is to do what you are doing: realizing that you overuse them. When you edit your manuscript, look for any that really stand out and try to find a better way of restructuring the sentence.
     
  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    here's where that nifty 'search' option in ms word comes in handy... it'll highlight them all, so you can then complete the 'destroy' half of the mission...
     
  15. Publishless
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    Publishless New Member

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    Thats are less than 1% (0.6%) of your word count. According to the COCA corpus (about 81 million words: http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/) "that" appears with a frequency of 10,277 per 1 million words (1%). Interestingly, according to the corpus that appears 100% more when spoken.

    Based on your then use and using Art's nGram graph, your thens would be around .06%, or 40 occurrences. You would likely have about 60 ''thans'. According to the CORPUS, in fiction .2% of words are "then".

    So, your thats may not be high, but you should slash your thens. Just wondering: should any of the thens be thans?
     

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