That misleading ‘that’

A story in yesterday’s Observer had a sentence that shows the importance of care in using the word that:

Assange insisted there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.

Because that follows no evidence but not insisted, the later thats — before WikiLeaks and implied in “and [that WikiLeaks had] taken great care” — can create false interpretations. Taken at face value, the line could be telling us that Assange insisted the following:

(1) there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk;
(2) there was no evidence that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back; and
(3) there was no evidence that WikiLeaks had taken great care not to put people at risk.

Yet only the first of these was intended; the others are contrary to Assange’s claims. Most readers will intuit from context the obvious meaning, but some may be misled. I don’t know how easily — for native readers, perhaps only by deliberate misreading. The and after risk is, crucially, not or. For comparison, though, see how the line reads with an extra that in the opening clause:

Assange insisted [that] there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.

without either that:

Assange insisted there was no evidence anyone had been put at risk and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and taken great care not to put people at risk.

and with the other that instead (and a clarifying comma):

Assange insisted that there was no evidence anyone had been put at risk, and that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and had taken great care not to put people at risk.

Given the options, and the story’s sensitivity, the potential for ambiguity ought to have been noticed and eliminated. It wouldn’t have been difficult. The third alternative above, for example, would have been clearer. Better and simpler again, the sentence could have been divided in two:

Assange insisted there was no evidence that anyone had been put at risk. He said that WikiLeaks had held sensitive information back and had taken great care not to put people at risk.

There’s a lot of leeway in which thats should be retained and which can be omitted. This leeway has its limits, though, as the Observer’s line and two previous posts demonstrate.

.

Note: This article also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

7 Responses to That misleading ‘that’

  1. It makes for a fair bit of ambiguity. Better use of punctuation would help… or any use!

  2. Sean Jeating says:

    Yep. That’s that about that.

  3. Tim says:

    That’s an interesting observation that you made there, Stan. That you were able to rearrange that sentence that many times shows us that you like that sort of thing.

    I, too, read it as there being no evidence of sensitive information having been held back. It’s amazing what inserting a comma can do.

    And that, I say, is that. ;)

  4. Stan says:

    Jams: I don’t think many people would read the line the wrong way, but I’m quite surprised the potential for misinterpretation wasn’t spotted at either the writing or editing stage.

    Sean: Yes, that‘s all, folks.

    Tim: I’ll have to write more about this that business. You’re right about the amazing difference some commas make: an amusing example is what’s known as the ‘Donner party comma’, which helpfully distinguishes between “Let’s eat, kids!” and “Let’s eat kids!”

  5. Claudia says:

    DaDeDiDeDa! I really needed that post that you just wrote. Better write a bit more on that subject that I I’m not sure at all that I understand. Someone told me once to cancel my thats. I tried but I was totally lost as to which one didn’t belong. BTW, I prefer to eat kids. Preferably the 3 years old.

  6. Stan says:

    Claudia: In that case I’ll postpone visiting you with my nephew until a few more months have passed. I’ve resolved to write more about that that, since the above deals with a specific example at the expense of general cases.

  7. Tim says:

    Claudia’s last phrase made me consider how interesting our use of plural is in English. I know that Asians struggle with it a lot, but having things come out naturally can be very tricky to inculcate.

    “Preferably the 3 years old” should read “preferably the 3 year olds”. We tend to pluralise a noun phrase, unless it is a hyphenated compound one.

    Take, for example, the word son-in-law. Plural, it is sons-in-law – we simply pluralise the first word. Sometimes, I think, it can just be tricky knowing which part of a group of words should have an “s” added; especially when one is not a native speaker.

    Here’s another interesting example, using a colloquialism: “I’ll feed you to the fishes”. Here, we pluralise “fish” according to the standard rule for words ending in “sh”; whereas when we simply talk about fish in general, that’s the plural form already. ;)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s