He discovered that his father had a special box in the basement

I was told that I should not use "that" in the above sentence although it is grammatically correct to use it. Why I shouldn't use "that" here?

  • 21
    Who told you not to use it? I would (AmE). – anongoodnurse Jul 15 '18 at 4:34
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    The "that" is not absolutely necessary, but, like anongoodnurse, I would use it; it makes the sentence clearer. – tautophile Jul 15 '18 at 4:37
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    And what was in the box??? – Richard Jul 15 '18 at 13:10
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    And if you prefer BrE, I would too. – Martin Bonner Jul 15 '18 at 16:27
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    Without "that", I start parsing that sentence as "He discovered his father", then get confused, have to back up and re-parse. :( – Hagen von Eitzen Jul 15 '18 at 18:22

It sounds to me that the advice was one of style rather than grammar.

Many people think that that should not be overused, and that sentences flow better without it.

From the blog post "Overuse of That" by Billie Jo Schinnerer:

My finding is many times it can be deleted without being missed and often increases the flow of the passage. For example in the sentence below:

She found that she did not like the soup.
She found she did not like the soup.

This is, of course, a subjective opinion. Some people may find the first sentence preferable, others the second. (I personally prefer the second sentence—without that.)

No doubt the person who told you to not use that in your sentence simply feels that it sounds better without it. (In this case, my feeling is the opposite. I think your particular sentence sounds better with that.)

But different sentences have different cadences, and sometimes it might sound more natural to include that in one and exclude it from another. The context in which a sentence exists (its surrounding text) also makes a difference.

There are some legitimate reasons why that should not be removed.

In the blog post "When to Delete 'That'," Neal Whitman (a guest blogger for Mignon Fogarty) gives the following example:

Sometimes, omitting a "that" after a non-bridge verb goes beyond being slightly awkward and can actually be confusing. Here’s an example from Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage:

  • Son acknowledges being a member of a minority ... may have helped him turn his eyes abroad early.

The trouble here is that "acknowledge" can be a transitive verb. So when a noun phrase comes after it, such as "being a member of a minority," the reader might just take it as a direct object: “Son acknowledges being a member of a minority.” But whoops! The sentence keeps going, and the reader has to go back and reparse it. Garner calls this a miscue; sentences that produce miscues like this are called garden-path sentences.

He goes on to say the following:

Nouns that sound awkward if you delete a "that" include "fact." A phrase like "the fact Squiggly likes chocolate" is clear enough, but it’s really awkward-sounding.

He finally concludes:

If you’re a native English speaker, the main rule to follow here is to go by your ear. You probably know what sounds natural and what doesn’t, and all you need to do is give that native-speaker intuition more weight and authority than a rule stating that you should omit "that" whenever possible.

If you’re not a native speaker, I recommend keeping the "that" unless you’re dealing with a verb, noun, or adjective that you know will sound good without it. It’s safer to leave it in than to leave it out. As you write and read more, you’ll identify more of the words that allow you to omit "that."

Update: As was rightly pointed out in a comment, in the sentence in the question, discover is a transitive verb. Therefore, the sentence is also an example of a miscue or so-called garden-path sentence if that is removed. It would be more apparent if ellipses were used, but it's a good objective reason for why it sounds a bit awkward without it.

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    The OP's sentence is a miscue without the "that". "Discover" can be transitive. "He discovered his father" …. oops, no he didn't, back up and try again! – alephzero Jul 15 '18 at 11:12
  • @alephzero Good catch! – Jason Bassford Jul 15 '18 at 12:25
  • I don't think the "that or nothing" question can arise at all without the verb being transitive. The quote errs in identifying transitivity as the cause of the miscue. The garden-path feeling arises more when (a) the subject of the that-clause could also meaningfully have been the complement of the first verb, and (b) this subject is longer than a few words. "He discovered his father" satisfies the first condition but not really the second. – Henning Makholm Jul 15 '18 at 14:25
  • Actually, your own answer has a good example: "Many people think that that should not be overused". Without the extra "that", the sort of miscue (that) alephzero points out occurs, although the bolding helps reduce the problem. – WhatRoughBeast Jul 15 '18 at 16:00
  • @WhatRoughBeast Using words as words brings its own set of problems. Ideally, the word being referenced shouldn't be considered as part of the functional sentence syntax itself. (When reading the sentence, the word—or phrase—could be replaced with X.) The same sort of thing applies to parenthetical information dropped into the middle of a sentence. But, despite that, it can cause parsing issues anyway. A possible rephrasing could be: Many people think the word that should not be overused. – Jason Bassford Jul 15 '18 at 16:14

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