(1199th of a series)
Over five years ago, a Forum member asked if it was possible to drop the word “that” in this sentence reporting about an opinion piece: “The political analyst said [that] several senators are strongly opposed to charter change and will fight every possible way.”
Justine Aragones also wanted to know why the word “that” is enclosed by brackets: “I am not so comfortable using lots of ‘that’ in reported speech in my written compositions. How can we avoid that word in such a way that the sentence remains grammatically acceptable?”
I replied that, yes, it’s possible — but not always — to drop the “that” in reported speech, as in the sentence he presented. It does sound just fine without it: “The political analyst said several senators are strongly opposed to charter change and will fight every possible way.” When “that” is shown enclosed with a bracket, the writer of that sentence knows and wants the reader to know that the “that” in that instance is optional, meaning that it can stay or be dropped without altering or destroying the sense of the sentence.
Dropping “that” from such sentences is a form of elliptical construction (“ellipsis” for short), which is a grammatical device that omits from a sentence of one or more words that are obviously understood but need to be mentally supplied to make the sentence grammatically complete. Ellipsis is often resorted to in reported speech or indirect speech, which we will recall is simply the kind of sentence used when someone articulates verbally or reports in writing what someone else has said.
It’s not always possible to drop “that” from reported speech though; we just have to play it by ear to find out if the sentence still works or becomes nonsensical without it. Still, it’s often welcomed or resorted to in journalistic writing as in Justine’s example, in informal writing, and in spoken or extemporaneous English.
For instance, the word “that” can be ellipted or dropped from this 2015 reported speech: “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.” Indeed, it reads even better and more fluidly without “that,” as we will discover when reading this “that”-less construction aloud: “Critics say the peace accord initiated by the President has been irreparably jeopardized by the January 25 massacre of 44 police troopers in Mamapasano.”
However, it won’t be possible to omit “that” when the relative clause introduced by it begins with an adverbial phrase, as in this sentence: “Welfare officials reported that prematurely terminating support to the flood-struck community would be disastrous to its residents.” See how the sentence collapses or becomes confusing when we drop “that”: “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 gain enough confidence to drop “that” from reported speech. Until then, we can 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 we can do those two alternative constructions perhaps only as many as twice or three times in every page, for soon the exposition might sound so stilted and so distracting that we might as well retain every “that” for our reported statements to avoid confusing the reader.
Next week: Determiners as functional elements of sentence structure