I'm reading a very interesting book by a widely recognized author, and I keep stumbling on a grammatical choice he makes. At the risk of sounding too critical, I'm pointing it out here because it can be a lesson for all of our writing. While there's certainly an appropriate place for conversational tone (and grammar), it can distract our readers -- placing their focus on our words instead of our ideas.
Here's the specific stumbling block: the unnecessary use of "that." I know. Trust me, I know. It's a total word nerd thing to point out and nobody cares about it as much as I do. Here's an example. In the sentence, "I think that there are lessons to learn," you don't need to say "that." If we change it to, "I think there are lessons to learn," the meaning of the sentence remains intact and its flow is improved.
It seems small, but this acclaimed author does it several times per page. I'm not saying it's wrong or he's stupid (because he's off-the-charts smart). But it's a distraction, certainly for grammar geeks and potentially for many others. It's a little tripping point in the sentence. More examples:
- "Everyone knows that it's better to have an expert show you..."
- "Of all the research that we've done..."
- [it] "was the kind of thing that art experts argued about at conferences."
My point? Aside from demonstrating the value of a good editor, it's an example of how conversational tone becomes a liability when it stops drawing readers in and starts removing them from an exchange with the author. Our words are like the glass in a window: we want our readers to look through them, not at them. Anyone who writes for public consumption -- and that's most of us these days -- does well to keep this in mind. Do your words point to your ideas, or themselves?