Filler words, also known as null words, are words that add no meaning to a sentence. They are extra, useless things, like raisins in cookies. Just kidding. I don’t like them, but some people do. I mention that because the same is true of filler words. Some people like them, and some don’t. So, like any “rule” of writing, consider this and then decide what is best for your story.
Personally, I don’t like the term “null words” as that implies they are nothing at all, and that’s not true. They do have meaning and use, or they wouldn’t exist, but they only fill up space if used unnecessarily.
As an editor and slush pile reader, I have seen stories hacked down to an incomprehensible mess to stay under a word count and stories with every possible word added and every contraction re-expanded in order to reach a word count, especially if the project paid per word. (Pro tip: don’t add words to earn a few cents. It shows when reading the story and will likely earn you a rejection instead.)
I first became aware of filler words when I, too, was fighting to get a story under word count. When I realized how many of the words and phrases added nothing, changed no meaning, and didn’t affect the tone of the story, I easily dropped below the limit I was aiming for.
That had a nice side effect: my writing became smoother and more readable.
My least favorite filler word is that. It can be complicated to explain when it is or isn’t a filler word. Because that can be used for so many different things, we often overuse it. How many times have you seen someone use that so that it became obvious that that was going to be a problem?
Okay, that sentence did not need to be written that way. It was unnecessarily complicated, but sometimes we speak like that, so we write like that. But the double that (that that) never fails to stop me in my tracks when reading. So, that is first on my list to search for and take out of my writing. Each time I see it, I look at the sentence it is in and ask myself, does taking it out change the meaning or the feeling of the sentence?
Sometimes it does. That is a valid word. It exists because it has a use. But do you need it? Some sticklers for grammar will say I take it out of places where it should remain, but, in my opinion, writing fiction is about entertainment, not practicing perfect grammar, and if the reader intuitively understands the meaning of what was written, it was done correctly.
Here are some examples of that as a filler word:
In each of those cases, the word that can be taken out, and nothing in the sentence’s meaning changes. It is truly a null word. That said, before you take them out, read them carefully and decide for yourself if it changes the feel or the tone of the sentence to you. If it does, then you might want to leave it in.
Remember, when I said grammar sticklers would disagree? Here’s the deal: when you take it out of those sentences, you have removed the subordinating conjunction connecting the dependent clause and the independent clause.
That is most often used as a definite article, but it can also be used as a conjunction, a subordinating conjunction, a demonstrative pronoun, a relative pronoun, an adverb, or as an adjective (and probably something I missed).
So, removing it does violate grammar rules. (Sometimes. Kind of.) But did you need it? Does the sentence read smoother without it? Sound less formal? Less stilted?
That could be a good thing. The flip side is that you may want to use it for exactly those reasons: to make your story sound more formal, or less formal, or to create a distinctive voice for a character, or to create a cadence or rhythm in the text. You may have noticed I left a lot of thats and filler words in this post. I did it to sound more conversational and friendly.
Remember, that plays many different roles, and sometimes you really do need to use it. Some sentences don’t work without it, and sometimes it creates confusion for the reader if you remove it.
Here are examples of that as a definite article:
Okay, that last sentence is not a good one, but it was to make a point. Yes, if you take the thats out of there it doesn’t make sense anymore, but it still isn’t really a good sentence if you leave them in. At that point, you should probably start over and rewrite the sentence.
You could try to replace the thats with the information they represent, making it an unwieldy sentence and undoing all the work the thats were doing, or you could take out all of the filler words and get a nice, clean, easy-to-read, easy-to-understand sentence.
Does that convey less information? Yes. But. In the context of a story, all of that other information was (probably) already implied, making it redundant to say it all again. Which made all of them a different kind of filler word—redundant information.
In the context of a news report, where that sentence is likely the only information we are getting, those thats are no longer filler words, they are conveying meaning. That would make them important, and you shouldn’t remove them.
But the thats acting as subordinating conjunctions? You can easily take those out.
As an adverb, that can stay or go, depending upon what you want, but here is where I encourage you to think about how it makes the sentence feel.
In each of those sentences, taking out that does change the meaning or the feel of the sentence, even though the sentence still makes sense without that in it.
As a pronoun, sometimes it needs to stay, sometimes it can go:
As an adjective, it probably needs to stay.
In the end, you need to decide what is best for your story, but I suspect you will be surprised at how often you can take out that without affecting any meaning, and you may be more surprised at how much better your text flows. (Or you may hate it!)
Fun bonus sentences, showing the versatility (and pain) of the word ‘that’ for you to ponder:
He said that that that that that boy used was incorrect.
It is true for all that that that that that that that refers to is not the same that that that that refers to.
Sam Knight is the owner/publisher of Knight Writing Press (knightwritingpress.com) and author of six children’s books, five short story collections, four novels, and over 75 stories, including three co-authored with Kevin J. Anderson. Though he has written in many cool worlds, such as Planet of the Apes, Wayward Pines, and Jeff Sturgeon’s Last Cities of Earth, among his family and friends he is, and probably always will be, best known for writing Chunky Monkey Pupu.
Once upon a time, Sam was known to quote books the way some people quote movies, but now he claims having a family has made him forgetful—as a survival adaptation.To learn more, you can find him at samknight.com.