Commentary: That four-letter word that gets used too often

By Tom Burke

There is a word that is causing me no end of grief.

It’s overused, wrongly used, and put where it doesn’t belong a million times a day. Whenever I see it in a sentence I want to grab an editor’s red pen and make the “delete” mark editors are so good at making.

Most people think that I’m crazy, however. They don’t see a problem. They think that because everyone does it, it isn’t wrong. How could they think that? Everyone who ever sat through English in grammar school (Grammar, as in the use of the English language, school) learned proper usage of the word.

I’m going to have to dig out my old copy of Edwin Newman’s “Plainly Speaking” to discover if that was a problem for him; I many even have to refer to his “Plainly Speaking II” to see if that’s there.

I know that he had good advice for English-as-a-primary-language speakers. I seem to recall that he thought that people who learn English as a second language, once they absorbed the rules that make English such a difficult language to learn, used better grammar than those of us who learned it at our parents’ knee.

So why do I dislike that word so much? That’s a good question.

I believe one reason is that now that I am conscious of word count (editors say, “Give me 800 words on….”) I am more parsimonious about how I use my allocations.

I also think that using that word doesn’t add clarity, make sentences flow “better,” or bring readers along to the sentence that comes next or the one that comes after that.

Sure, there are proper times and places to use that word. Just like there’s a proper time and place to use dynamite, castor oil and fabric softener. It’s just that that word should be used in moderation. It should be written into a sentence with care and concern, and for me at least, to demonstrate one’s mastery of basic writing skills.

Another question: Can a paragraph be written without using that word?

It’s an interesting question. Perhaps a description of a snow-covered peak on the peninsula could be written sans the proscribed word. Could a political commentary concerning the latest Clinton/Trump battle be scratched out without stringing those four over-used letters together? I’d like to think so.

I know I can write a news story and keep the offending bit of language at least down to a dull roar. I also know when I finish a sentence, or paragraph, or story I give one read just to insure I didn’t break my own rules.

So what is the offending word? Perhaps some have figured it out.

Because that’s what I’m talking about. That. T. H. A. T.

Today many seem to use “that” as the written 21st century equivalent to the ’80s and ’90s conversational “like.” Like, you know man, like we use that word far too much, and it, like, makes us sound like we don’t know, like, what we’re talking about.

What to do with a surfeit of “that’s?” First, thank Bill Gates or Steve Jobs’s ghost or someone for the “Delete” key. Next, use it. Finally, feel good, because that’s a good way to feel and everyone wants to feel that way, good about what they do.

Tom Burke lives in Bothell.

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