That’s That, Professor!
By Lawrence Martin
Leafy Bough College, Vermont. Winter, 2020. Classroom seminar titled “Writing Fiction: Basic Rules for Beginners”
Sitting around a large table are twelve sophomores, along with their teacher, a middle-aged man called the Professor. The Professor’s resume includes several short stories in literary magazines, and he is rumored to be working on a novel.
On the table before each student is a cardboard sign with their name in bold letters. The class meets once a week, and after today’s introductory lecture, each student will submit a piece of fiction for critiquing.
“So we’ve covered quite a lot today,” says the Professor, “including point of view, dialogue tags, and use of passive voice. There is one more thing that I would like to mention, sort of a pet peeve of mine and, I do believe, of other experienced writers as well. Try not to use ‘that’ in your writing. Expunge it from your work as much as possible. And if you want to use ’that’, please, no more than once per thousand words.”
“Why is that?” Michael asks.
“Why is what?”
“Why only once every thousand words, Professor? Is that a hard and fast rule?”
“No, that’s not a hard and fast rule, Michael. It’s just a strong suggestion. The word can be used as a pronoun, an adverb, a conjunction, or a determiner. As such, it tends to get way overused, draws too much attention to your writing, and that’s something you want to avoid.”
“That’s a word that introduces a noun. A determiner always comes before a noun, not after. Like ‘that dog’ or ‘that house’.”
“How about dialogue, sir? Should you avoid using ‘that’ in dialogue?”
“That depends on your character, Michael. If your character likes to use ‘that’, and you want to portray him or her as somewhat of a pedant, then that’s okay — if that’s your character type. But in narration, frequent use of ‘that’ is verboten.”
“Verboten?” Michael asks, not in a challenging way, but to suggest he’s not certain of the meaning. No one else around the table speaks up.
“‘Forbidden’, replies the Professor. “That’s German, in case you didn’t know.”
“German? Okay, sure,” says Michael, sounding pleased for the clarification. “Can we use the German translation of “that” if the speaker is German?”
“Das ist auch verboten.”
Michael does not ask for translation, presumably because he gets the meaning. He does ask, “One more question, if I may, Professor?”
“That’s fine, then we’ll call it a day.”
“When did ‘that’ become verboten? Wasn’t it widely used in the past, in literature?”
Before the Professor can answer, another student raises her hand and also waves it a little, as to suggest she can answer Michael’s question. She is called on.
“Michael does have a point. I just searched Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, on my phone. The first chapter is 850 words and Austen uses ‘that’ fourteen times.”
“What made you look at that book, if I may ask?”
“Oh, because I remember its famous first line,” and here she quotes: “‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ So, I was curious if Jane Austen might have used ‘that’ elsewhere in the chapter.”
“I see,” says the Professor, in a low voice.
“Do you want me to search the rest of the book?” she asks.
“That won’t be necessary, Elisa.”
Before the Professor can offer any admonishment, which does seem it might be forthcoming, Gregory yells out. “Professor!”
“Gregory, are you ill? Why the shouting?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, just a little excited. I googled Sherlock Holmes, I mean Arthur Conan Doyle, one of his stories, “The Red-Headed League.” ‘That’ appears 146 times out of 9100 words in the story. Isn’t that a lot of ‘thats’? By your rule it should be no more than nine times.”
The Professor does not seem pleased with the information. “That’s nineteenth century literature, Gregory. I know the story well. Eighteen nineties, I believe. Last time I checked, this is the twenty-first century.”
Jacob raises his hand, drawing attention.
“I apologize, but I also could not help doing a quick phone search while you and Michael were talking. I looked up one of Hemingway’s short stories, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. I remember it from an old movie made of the story, called The Macomber Affair. It starred Gregory Peck and Joan Bennett. May I tell you what I found?”
The Professor rolls his eyes, then glances at the wall clock. “Yes, yes, go ahead, if you must.”
“In Hemingway’s short story — not the movie — I see ‘that’ is used 143 times.”
Before the Professor can respond, Jacob continues. “Here is just one line I found.” To show he is quoting, Jacob holds his phone up to eye level. “‘The mess boy had started them already, lifting the bottles out of the canvas cooling bags that sweated wet in the wind that blew through the trees that shaded the tents.’”
After Jacob’s third emphasis of the forbidden word, a few students giggle.
The Professor remains stoic. “Okay, enough phone searches. You are all smart. I did not say ‘smart alecks’, because that wouldn’t be fair, but smart nonetheless. And, being smart, you know that styles change, tastes change. I am trying to give you helpful information for today, not a hundred years ago. If you’re going to be decent writers, you must learn some modern ways, and not get bogged down in old forms that will do you no good. And that’s really all I have to say on the matter. Any questions?”
There are none.
“Well,” says Michael, “I guess that’s that.”