How "That" Can Improve Word Flow in Your Writing -->

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How "That" Can Improve Word Flow in Your Writing

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What does the phrase word flow mean to you? It is a difficult metaphor to pin down because words don’t literally flow like a river or a stream. So, the definition of word flow can vary for each student, teacher, and writing instructor.

As a writing instructor, I had a few specific identifiers for word flow when reviewing a student’s essay:
  • Simple, clear sentences that communicate in active voice.
  • Limited rhetorical phrases or words.
  • No dramatic grammar usage.

This last one may seem strange, so I want to lead with an example and anecdote. The last time I wanted to buy a rug, I visited my local IKEA store. When I approached the checkout counter, there was a sign posted that read: “It’s OK, to change your mind” with a little heart next to it.* I would like to give the folks at IKEA the benefit of the doubt and presume the comma is a translation issue from Swedish to English. However, my first assumption is that the comma was included for dramatic effect. In other words, a dramatic pause after the reassuring phrase “It’s OK.”

Eliminating that excess comma would improve word flow immensely! Take a minute to read these sentences out loud:
  • “It’s OK, to change your mind.”
  • “It’s OK to change your mind.”

Hear the difference? That’s word flow.

* Side note: Apparently some Ikea store signs have better word flow: 

IKEA: it's OK to change your mind... by Feeling My Age | Flickr (CC by 2.0)

A quick tip that you are sure to like:

Quite often, many of us write with the same inflections found in our speech. And while it is true for all writing that there should be a distinct scholarly voice versus an informal voice, this distinction is especially true for APA where the proofs are founded on scientifically proven measurements.

Lucky for all of you wonderful readers, I have a quick tip to help improve word flow and your scholarly voice. It is as easy as finding just one word that you might be using unnecessarily throughout your writing: which.

The word which introduces what professional writing gurus refer to as a nonrestrictive clause. This particular clause includes information that can be eliminated from your sentence without changing the meaning of your sentence. The issue is that we often use the word which, which introduces unnecessary information, when the word that will suffice.

By contrast, the word that introduces a restrictive clause. In other words, a clause that—you guessed it—is necessary to the sentence and changes the meaning if it is removed. The catch is that the word which requires a comma before it, and the word that does not. That comma interjects a short pause into your writing, which is quite often unnecessary.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Here is a quick tip that you are sure to like.
  • Here is a quick tip, which you are sure to like.

Which is correct? Well, both are correct because the phrase you are sure to like is additional information and can be removed from the sentence without altering its meaning. However, the first example does not contain a pause. And the absence of that pause helps increase word flow.

Here’s a trickier example:

  • My dentist only accepts Melba Dental Care Insurance, which is great for me because I am covered by Melba.
  • I have strawberry or orange candy; which do you prefer?

Which is correct? Both are correct! The first example is a nonrestrictive clause, but it is useful information for your reader or listener. The second exemplifies another function of the word which: the word which indicates a choice between objects.

What I would like all of you to do is open the latest document that you are working on. Go ahead, I’ll wait. OK. Now, use the find function (ctrl+f or command+f) and find the word which throughout your document. Here’s the test: When you find the word which in your document, determine if the information that follows it is relevant and necessary to the sentence.
  • If it is not relevant, and you want to keep the information, then make certain to add a comma before the word which.
  • If it is relevant and you want to increase your word flow, then try exchanging the word that for the word which and eliminating the comma.

This test is great for becoming accustomed to the distinction between that and which. However, my rule for scholarly writing and word flow is pretty simple: I always prefer that over which. And that, ladies and gentleman, is how that can quickly improve word flow.

This month, we're discussing word choice on the blog and podcast. To catch up on what you missed, check out WriteCast Episode 24: Why Word Choice MattersMatt's post on abolishing imperatives, and Hillary's post on writing meaningful and worthwhile sentences.


Shawn Picht, formerly a Writing Center writing instructor, is the manager of faculty support in the Academic Skills Center. In his free time he likes to jog, jump rope, read literature and philosophy, write about his travels, and play Rolling Stones and Dylan songs on a blue acoustic guitar. 

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