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In general, when can I omit that from a sentence?

Can I omit that (emphasized) in sentence (2) below?

  1. We say that such algorithms handle concept drift and can learn from time-changing data streams.
  2. When the statistical properties of the target variable change, we say that concept drift has occurred.
  3. She told me that some of her classmates failed.

To me, sentences (1) and (3) sound better without that. If I omit that from (2), it just doesn't sound right when I read it out loud. (I should point out I'm not a native speaker.)

How do you decide when to omit it? Is it just a matter of taste? (I know that is sometimes mandatory.)

Can you think of sentences that "sound better" with that? Can you think of sentences that "sound better" without that? Can you think of a few sentences where it is wrong to omit that?

  • All three of your examples use a "that" which is a marker of clausal subordination: in your case, that "that" marks the beginning of a declarative content clause. Sometimes that "that" marker is obligatory, sometimes optional, sometimes not allowed. There are some related rules on this, but there is no one simple general rule. It's something that native English speakers just pick up while speaking and listening and reading. (Note: Your "that" is NOT a relative word or relative pronoun.) – F.E. May 13 '14 at 18:30
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All three of your examples use a "that" which is a marker of clausal subordination: in your case, that "that" marks the beginning of a declarative content clause.

Sometimes that "that" marker is obligatory, sometimes optional, sometimes not allowed. There are some related rules on this, but there is no one simple general rule. It's something that native English speakers just pick up while speaking and listening and reading.

Note: Your "that" is NOT a relative word or relative pronoun. (There is another "that" which is the marker of clausal subordination for that-relative clauses. Some grammars consider that the two markers to be, or could be considered to be, the same. In any case, the "that" marker for relative clauses has a different set of rules in regard to its presence or absence than the one marking declarative content clauses.)

One rather firm rule--well, somewhat a firm "rule"--is that if the declarative content clause is the subject of the main clause, then the "that" marker is obligatory. That is so the reader will get a heads-up to realize that the content clause's subject is NOT the subject of the main clause, even though it is located at the beginning of the sentence.

There are a whole bunch of more similar rules, but they are all rather specific as to the syntactic situation that they are talking about. If the rules were simplified or made too general, then there would be too many so-called exceptions. Native English speakers know these rules implicitly (their ear does all the work), but they would usually be hard pressed to explain them--and if they attempted to explain them, their explanations would often be wrong and/or misleading.

1

My rule is to discard verbiage that isn't essential. If the sentence works without a "that," then go there. If it doesn't, keep the "that." Of course, you must have a little feeling for the rhythm of the language.

  • ELU values answers that show objective research; those claiming a reliance on 'a feeling for how it should sound' sound irretrievably opinion-based and are unhelpful. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 20 at 18:43
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They are fine. And, as you say, it is preference. I like to think of the word that as a light bulb, using it only when there isn't enough clarity. Some examples:

  1. "She said that the criminal could not be found." - It's not really necessary, even though it sounds a little weird without it.
  2. "It was when she heard footprints in the night that she decided to call the police." - You probably should leave that where it is.
  3. "I hate sentences that end with a preposition."- It's best to use that here.

It doesn't hurt if you choose to use it. And there are usually ways around using it. But you're right — sometimes you must use it, although I find those cases to be rare. Personally, I rework sentences so that isn't used because, as a reader, I hate to trip over unnecessary words. Just my two cents. (: -MP

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    Your third example is a relative clause, not a complement clause; as such, it is not really relevant to the question at hand. (In relative clauses, that is mandatory when it marks the subject, optional otherwise; in complement clauses, things are far more complicated.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 13 '14 at 18:47
  • Hm, I see! Thank you for the clarification and correction. I figured it would be worth showing the general uses of "that". I wasn't aware that we were only focusing on complement clauses (my apologies to the OP). – mathispayne May 13 '14 at 21:40
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Swan in Practical English Usage (p584) has a section on when that can be omitted. He notes that while that is omitted after many common reporting verbs, there are "certain verbs, especially intransitive verbs" after which that "cannot be dropped". His examples are reply, email, shout:

? James replied he was feeling better.

? She shouted she was busy.

Note that in my sentence above (and in this one) that cannot be dropped:

? He notes while that is omitted after many common reporting verbs, there are "certain verbs ...

Swan also says: "That is not usually dropped after nouns."

? I did not believe his claim he was ill.

? He disagreed with Copernicus' view the earth went around the sun.

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    I definitely don’t agree with Swan about the first two. “James replied he was feeling better” and “She shouted she was busy” are both perfectly natural and idiomatic to me—no need for a question mark at all. Note, however, does require that, as do nouns. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 13 '14 at 19:23
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    @Janus. For me reply and shout lie on a continuum of reporting verbs between those where omitting that is common and natural and those where the omission sounds questionable. Example: ?He observed all research is now conducted in universities. Native-speakers will inevitably locate these verbs at different places along the continuum. – Shoe May 13 '14 at 20:03
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I love William Strunk, The Elements of Style. In response to your first question about omitting that from a sentence, here are some of his brilliant suggestions:

In especial the expression the fact that should be revised out of:

  1. owing to the fact that -- replace with since
  2. (because) in spite of the fact that --- replace with though (although)
  3. call your attention to the fact that -- remind you (notify you)

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