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Does in that make my sentence formal? If so, how can I change it to be more neutral?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Jason Bassford, TrevorD, Skooba, choster, J. Taylor Mar 10 at 1:58

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I believe a re-arranged version is more neutral:

They complement one another to form the whole, like pieces of a puzzle.

(One could use '...like the pieces of a puzzle.' here; I see little difference between them.)

There's a great many valid ways this could be re-arranged, but I think this version is the least-belaboured.

  • What is being emphasized, that "they" are like puzzle pieces, insignificant looking on their own, or that the picture they combine to create is like a puzzle, visible only by combining the pieces? That emphasis should determine the word order and the choice to use "pieces" (if the nature of the pieces is the focus) or "the pieces" (if the nature of the picture is the focus). – remarkl Mar 7 at 23:05
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You'd really need to specify your target audience if you want to fine-tune a sentence like that. There would be no problem with it in The Atlantic, say, or The Economist, but it might stand out in People as the phrase in that is not in the working vocabulary of a good percentage of native speakers.

If you wanted to get rid of it entirely and were willing to reorder your sentence

Like the pieces of a puzzle they complement one another.

But even the word complement would give some readers trouble.

If you want also to say "to form the whole" you're back to square one again, as the register of that phrase, with "the whole", is elevated above conversational— again for a large percentage of native speakers but by no means all.

P.S. If you find yourself explaining your metaphor, you're generally on thin ice.

  • I see. Is it necessary to use the definite article before pieces? – Alex Shirokiy Mar 7 at 22:40
  • "the pieces of a puzzle" would suggest all of them, whereas "pieces of a puzzle" could mean only some of them, and so, if by "form the whole" you mean "complete the whole" not merely "contribute to the whole", then you'd want to use the article. – TRomano Mar 7 at 23:00
  • In a way "in that" makes the sentence more accessible to less sophisticated readers. Where grammarians see a noun clause in a prolix prepositional phrase, the mind's ear hears two declarative sentences joined by an explicit clue to the relationship between them. What more could an audience not in a hurry ask? – remarkl Mar 7 at 23:44
  • @remarkl: I don't think your calling "in that" an "explicit clue" makes sense in that if you don't know what "in that" means it is not much of a clue at all. That's a fairly sophisticated use of the preposition in. – TRomano Mar 8 at 10:35
  • @TRomano I don't think that matters all that much. The two straightforward "sentences" that it enables seem to me to make the meaning very accessible. I agree that an unsophisticated speaker would not use "in that," but I am less sure that the structure would be difficult for an unsophisticated audience to interpret. But you may be right. – remarkl Mar 8 at 12:00

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