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ralph robert moore

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our world is a word
keeping your sentences 'that-free'

Fiction transports the reader to a world which does not exist, except in the head of the writer.

The actual transport is on the wings of sentences.

The stronger each sentence, the less bumpy the ride.

Each sentence must be pared down until all unnecessary words have been removed.

Although sentences may be choked with all sorts of clutter, including excess adjectives, empty phrases and pointless elaboration, in this article we're going to focus on the following villains:

Words of degree


'That' is the most worthless word ever created.

It fats up a sentence, giving back no benefit.

He said that he could be ready by seven.

Should be written as

He said he could be ready by seven.

Just as

I agree that we need to do something.

Should be

I agree we need to do something.

Although 'that' is occasionally needed in a sentence, for example as a relative pronoun ('Stand by that door until your name is called'), it is otherwise unnecessary. If you go through a piece of fiction you've written, you're likely to discover the sentences are clotted with that's. Remove them, and your sentences will improve. They may even finally flap.


'And' is most often used for one of two purposes, to signal the conclusion of a series, or to connect two sections of a sentence.

As a signaler, 'and' appears immediately before the final item in a series.

He sent her roses, a small diamond ring, and his left ear.

(I prefer the slight pause a comma before the final item in a series provides, although some writers, influenced by early twentieth-century newspaper writers, where narrow columns put space at a premium, eliminate this punctuation).

The same sentence can be written without the unnecessary 'and', so that each image rises in the reader's imagination without the distraction of the conjunction.

He sent her roses, a small diamond ring, his left ear.

As a means to connect two sections of a sentence, 'and' often signals the sentence should instead be broken into two sentences at the occurrence of the conjunction.

She filed a petition with the county clerk the next day, and followed up a week later with a phone call.

Let's eliminate the 'and', turning to two sentences to convey the same ideas.

She filed a petition with the county clerk the next day. Followed up a week later with a phone call.

Here we've presented the same information in a much more easily-digested form. Without the hurry of the 'and', the reader has the time to appreciate the impact of her filing a petition. To better see her determination lasting into the following week.

(There are those who will complain the second sentence, lacking a subject ('She followed up') is a sentence fragment, and therefore not proper English. Sentence fragments, by their briefness, which gives their information greater impact, have been widely condemned, I think by writers who are slow to accept stylistic innovations. Fragments are a useful means of paring down sentences, by eliminating traditional elements such as subjects and verbs. They're powerful tools.)

The conjunction 'but', on the other hand, is more powerful than 'and', in that it can express consolation. "She wouldn't go home with me, but she gave me her phone number." A more subtle suggestion of consolation, of course, would be to again split the sentence. "She wouldn't go home with me. She gave me her phone number."


'Then', like 'and', is unnecessary, since the temporal sequence mandated by 'then', "this occurred, then that", is easily conveyed by the linear arrangement of events in a sentence.

He rolled a joint, then smoked it.

We can achieve greater impact by letting the timeline implied by the linear presentation of events sort out which came first.

He rolled a joint, smoked it.

By eliminating 'then', we move from one image to the next without any wasted words. Each unnecessary word interferes with the images you are creating for your reader.

Words of Degree

To keep the impact of your words as powerful as possible, eliminate all qualifiers.

It was very cold outside.

'Very' means nothing. 'Very' does not exist in the real world.

It was cold outside.

Which is more direct. When you use 'very', you're requiring your reader to stop reading, if only for a moment, to consider how cold 'very cold' is.

If it is important to you to convey that it was not merely cold, but rather extremely cold, use a word which expresses that extreme.

It was freezing outside.

Qualifiers crop up all the time, if you're not careful.

There were about four thousand warriors storming up the hill.

Why on earth would a writer use 'about' in this sentence? Is it a fear of being challenged if he or she were to definitively state 'there were four thousand warriors'? By qualifying the number with 'about' or 'almost' or 'nearly' or 'close to' or 'over', or 'in excess of', the writer introduces an element of uncertainty into the sentence, making the reader wonder, even if briefly, just how many warriors there were.

I can't think of a single instance where a qualifier helps, rather than hurts, a sentence.

Popular qualifiers are:

kind of

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