Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In all seriousness, are there any common patterns or strategies people use to avoid having to write a sentence in which "that that" appears?

For example:

Evidential decision theory recommends taking the action that you expect will yield the highest utility, given that that action has been taken.

I am aware that the construction is grammatical; it's just rather ungainly in written form. Interestingly I find it doesn't usually sound as awkward as it reads, since people usually pronounce the two differently, with a long a on the second 'that'.

share|improve this question
3  
No need to avoid. It's not ungainly at all. Its prevalence in writing is of course, on the decline. However, "How to avoid" would probably be a question for writersSE rather than ELU. books.google.com/ngrams/… –  Kris Mar 25 '13 at 5:24
    
Very interesting link there, thanks! Perhaps that's why I feel it's ungainly - I just rarely see it! Good to know that this should be in writersSE. I suppose that's the reason for the downvotes. :( –  Will Mar 25 '13 at 15:48
    
Why not just: "Evidential decision theory recommends taking the action that you expect will yield the highest utility." I can't see any need to rule out the possibility that an action might somehow yield utility even if not taken. –  David Schwartz Aug 3 '13 at 3:01
    
@DavidSchwartz, in context, it's actually important to emphasize that the calculation is done with the action as a given—this sentence was in contrast to the one directly preceding it, which described a different way of interpreting what you "expect will yield the highest utility". When out of context, of course, you're right. –  Will Aug 4 '13 at 4:28
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

US English usage tends to replace the use of "which/who/whom" with "that".

Normal usage:

I believe this is the reason which caused her to lose her mind.

US tendency:

I believe this is the reason that caused her to lose her mind.

Normal usage:

This is the man who has taken my parking spot.

US tendency:

This is the man that has taken my parking spot.

To exact revenge on US tendency for over-use (and frequently inappropriate use) of "that", we should look for opportunities to replace "that" with any other word. It is frustrating isn't it, when even Microsoft Word compels you to replace your "whiches" with "thats"? Here, revenge of the whiches ...

Evidential decision theory recommends taking the action which you expect will yield the highest utility, given that such action has been taken.

share|improve this answer
    
Why the down votes? True, you left out "is" in examples three and four, but your observations seem to be on-point. Plus one. By the way, couldn't the "that" in your last example be elided with no ill effect? –  rhetorician Aug 3 '13 at 17:28
    
Those who voted me down, did it out of misplaced nationalism - not unlike Mexican school kids in east LA angered by American kids parading the US flag on their t-shirts and baseball caps. How dare these US kids contaminate our Mexican flagged hallways with their US flag, despite attending a US public school on US soil funded by US taxes. –  Blessed Geek Aug 4 '13 at 3:56
2  
Possibly, they just did not care for the implicit judgment that apparently US English is not ‘normal’ … –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 4 '13 at 5:39
    
I would say that this usage is equally prevalent in British English. Personally, I frequently use "that that". When reading something where one "that" has been omitted, I often find myself doing a 'double-take' and having to re-read the sentence. So I would suggest that omitting one "that" instead of using a double "that that" can lead to lost of clarity. –  TrevorD Aug 26 '13 at 11:17
    
I object to this part: "US tendency: This is the man that has taken my parking spot." Even your abnormal Americans, such as Mignon Fogarty for example, get surprised at finding out that a credible reference actually condones the usage of that for human referents. "Shocked," to be exact. –  Talia Ford Oct 11 '13 at 11:15
show 1 more comment

Yes, there is a strategy for avoiding the that that syntax; it's called editing!

Seriously, what is wrong with this wording:

"Evidential decision theory recommends taking the action you expect will yield the highest utility, given action has been taken"?

Or,

"Given action has been taken, evidential decision theory recommends taking the action you expect will yield the highest utility"?

I must add, however, that even with my editing, the sentences don't really make sense to me. Do they to you?

In other words, the following sentence makes more sense to me:

"Given the need to take action, evidential decision theory recommends taking the action that will yield the highest utility."

Or,

"Given a need to act, ED theory recommends acting to yield the highest utility."

share|improve this answer
    
Point taken—editing is probably the answer. However, I think you've misunderstood the meaning of the sentence; the alternate forms you've suggested mean something completely different, and indeed, don't make much sense. –  Will Aug 4 '13 at 4:31
    
You're almost certainly right. I'm missing something--somewhere, somehow. Forgive my ignorance. –  rhetorician Aug 4 '13 at 22:41
    
No worries! The confusion is probably due to the sentence's attempt to precisely render a mathematical idea in English. See Evidential Decision Theory for a description. –  Will Aug 5 '13 at 19:56
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.