Sometimes we get guidelines of writing stuck so firmly in our heads that we become convinced they’re rules of grammar that “everyone” knows are entirely factual. Often, they are guidelines we learned at a young age, leading us to pronounce, “This is 8th-grade grammar!” if someone questions us about it.
The difficulty with 8th-grade grammar is that middle school teachers may be teaching not only widely accepted rules but also guidelines for subjectively understood “good” writing. And whether it’s because the students are thirteen years old, because we don’t remember every piece of our lessons years later, or because not all teachers make it fully clear, the distinction doesn’t always stick.
The topics I covered in my “seldoms” series (paragraph-ending quotations, sentence-opening conjunctions, and passive voice) have an element of that in them, but they pop up all the time, so that one person’s malleable style preference is another person’s hard-and-fast rule.
Another example is introducing quotations with the word “that.” This is a convention that comes up more often in scholarly nonfiction than it does in other writing genres, and it’s fairly rare in fiction. Since I’m so accustomed to it, I didn’t realize until it came up in a social media discussion recently that some people think it’s wrong. Here’s what I’m referring to:
With another aphorism he reminded his readers that “experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other”—an observation as true today as then.
Both of these examples come from the Chicago Manual of Style, in a section (13.14) that is not on the topical word, “that,” but on capitalization. It’s a way of presenting a quotation while suiting the syntax of the sentence around it to its use, and it’s so standard in this style of writing that it doesn’t even merit mention. Yet when this construction was raised (also in a discussion on capitalization, interestingly), three separate people insisted that what follows the word “that” is implied to be paraphrase and can’t (they actually said can’t, not shouldn’t) be a direct quote.
It wasn’t until I provided the above examples from Chicago that the arguments ebbed.
Since I hadn’t heard this “rule” about not introducing a quote with the word “that” before this conversation, I can’t be certain where it comes from, but my best guess is that it’s an example of mistaking style for grammar. I can in fact see arguments for avoiding it for style reasons, not grammatical ones. Going with the comma instead of that is arguably more concise, for instance, and it’s a construction with few uses in a fiction context.
However, these points don’t make the that construction grammatically wrong, and there are times when it works very well. As I noted, it’s very common in scholarly writing, so I would assume (or hope) that the naysayers focus on other genres in their editing and were for that reason unfamiliar with its acceptability.
This particular topic is merely an example of a general tendency most of us (“us” being word lovers) have at some point to confuse style choices with rules of grammar or mechanics. This one was only notable to me because I had never heard the argument made before three individuals made it, despite the appearance of counter-examples in a reference that one of them claimed to adhere to. We come across them all the time, with some “rules” (e.g., splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions) evoking far more discussion about how they’re no longer rules than discussion of toeing the line on them.
As editors, we regularly mix enforcement of widely accepted rules with application of style choices so fluidly that we don’t always think about which is which, and with some clients in some types of editing, it doesn’t matter. It’s good to be aware where on the style–rule spectrum all our changes fall, though, and how that place on the spectrum might even vary with different genres, media, or audiences. It serves us and our clients well both in our work and in our debates among ourselves.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.