THE following questions about the use of elliptical construction in reported or indirect speech were asked recently in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by member Justine Aragones:
“Is it possible to drop the introductory word ‘that’ in this sentence: ‘The political analyst said that several senators are strongly opposed to charter change and will fight every possible way.’ I ask because I’m not so comfortable using a lot of reported-speech ‘thats’ in my written composition. How can we avoid that word and yet keep the sentence grammatically acceptable? (Also, what’s the point when ‘that’ is enclosed by a bracket?)”
Before answering those questions, let me define first the two grammatical terms involved.
Elliptical construction, or ellipsis for short, is the omission from a sentence of one or more words that are obviously understood but need to be mentally supplied to make the sentence grammatically complete. Reported speech or indirect speech is, of course, simply the kind of sentence someone makes when reporting what someone else has said.
With those two definitions for context, here now is my reply to Justine’s questions:
Yes, it’s possible to drop the “that” in reported speech, as in this sentence that you presented, now without “that”: “The political analyst said several senators are strongly opposed to charter change and will fight every possible way.” (It reads just fine, doesn’t it?) As to the bracket enclosing “that,” it’s the writer’s way of saying that the “that” can stay or be dropped without altering or destroying the sense of the sentence.
But would it always be possible to drop “that” from reported speech? We need to play it by ear to find out if, without the “that,” the sentence still works or has become nonsensical.
Dropping the “that” in reported speech is actually a form of ellipsis that’s meant to streamline the sentence, making it more concise and easier to articulate. This is why ellipting “that” is done often in journalistic writing, informal writing, and conversational English.
For example, “that” can be safely ellipted or dropped from this reported-speech sentence: “Critics say that the peace accord initiated by the President has been irreparably jeopardized by the January 25 massacre of 44 police troopers in Mamapasano.” See for yourself how that sentence reads even better and more fluidly without the “that”: “Critics say the peace accord initiated by the President has been irreparably jeopardized by the January 25 massacre of 44 police troopers in Mamapasano.”
Ellipting “that” in reported speech can’t always be done, however. In particular, it won’t work for sentences in which the relative clause introduced by “that” begins with an adverbial phrase, as in this example: “Welfare officials reported that prematurely terminating support to the flood-struck community would be disastrous to its residents.”
That sentence collapses into a confusing heap when “that” is dropped: “Welfare officials reported prematurely terminating support to the flood-struck community would be disastrous to its residents.” (Huh?) The problem is that the adverb “prematurely” has become a squinting modifier, indecisive on whether to modify the verb before it or the entire phrase that follows it.
It takes some doing to become confident and comfortable in dropping “that” from reported speech. In the meantime, you can actually avoid using “that” by tucking in the reporting verb inside the sentence or by placing it at the tail end of the reported statement, as follows: “Prematurely terminating support to the flood-struck community, welfare officials reported, would be disastrous to its residents,” or “Prematurely terminating support to the flood-struck community would be disastrous to its residents, welfare officials reported.”
But then you can only do those two alternative constructions perhaps only once or twice in every page, for soon the exposition will sound so stilted and so distracting that you might as well retain every “that” in your reported statements.
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