A famous writer (I forgot who or where) once complained about not being able to avoid 'the fact that' in his writing. Such inelegance! Yet he just couldn't bring himself to remove it from every sentence—which he could have done, because reducing 'the fact that' to a plain 'that' always results in a grammatically correct sentence. In fact, I once worked with a copy editor who did just that: She returned my manuscript with every instance of 'the fact that' reduced to 'that'. In all cases, the result was grammatically correct. But in some cases, the result was also atrocious.
So why do some sentences just seem to require a 'the fact that', even when it is grammatically redundant and almost universally despised? I have given this matter a disproportionate amount of thought, and arrived at the conclusion that it is all about expectations.
The word 'that' can have several grammatical roles. It can be an adjective, as in: 'that capybara'. (Which capybara? That one!) Or it can be a conjunction, which is a word that introduces a subclause, as in: 'Do you know that capybaras are the largest rodents?' ('That' can also be a pronoun, of course, but let's forget about that for now.)
Now here's the thing: You often don't know which role 'that' has until you've read the entire sentence. And that's confusing. For example, after reading 'I like that …', you still don't know whether 'that' will be an adjective ('I like that capybara') or a conjunction ('I like that capybaras are friendly'). In many cases, we seem to prefer interpreting 'that' as an adjective. And when it then turns out to be a conjunction, our expectations are violated—and the sentence is awkward.
This where 'the fact that' comes in: It excludes the interpretation of 'that' as an adjective, because 'I like the fact that capybara' simply doesn't make any sense. In other words, when you read, 'I like the fact that …', you know that 'that' is going to be a conjunction.
To see whether this is true, let's consider a few sentences. Just go with your gut feeling as to which sentences are acceptable, and which are objectionable.
- I love that girl, but I don't love that she ate my bunny because she was jealous of our special relationship.
- I love that girl, but I don't love the fact that she ate my bunny because she was jealous of our special relationship.
To me, both sentences are fine, but I have a slight preference for the first: 'the fact that' seems unnecessary. Presumably, this is because the first 'that' introduces the girl (as an adjective), and we then expect the second 'that' to introduce a subclause to tell us more about her. So we don't need a 'the fact that' to set up an expectation that we already have.
Let's see what happens if we flip the order of the sentence around.
- I don't love that she ate my bunny, but I do love that girl.
- I don't love the fact that she ate my bunny, but I do love that girl.
I still feel that both sentences are fine, but I now have a slight preference for the second: 'the fact that' makes the sentence feel less abrupt; it helps me to anticipate what comes next.
Now let's consider a sentence that sets up a strong-but-false expectation that 'that' will be an adjective:
- I was disappointed by that new Jay-Z songs are only available through Tidal.
I strongly, strongly object to this sentence. And I'm sure you do too. Why? Well, the first part of the sentence ('I was disappointed by that new Jay-Z song …') is already a complete sentence in which 'that' serves as an adjective. But then the sentence goes on ('…s are only available through Tidal'), completely violating this initial interpretation. And the reader is left wondering: what just happened?!
Adding a 'the fact that' makes the sentence flow much more smoothly.
- I was disappointed by the fact that new Jay-Z songs are only available through Tidal.
In other words, the fact that 'the fact that' seems so unavoidable is because it is: It can serve an important role in disambiguating 'that'. But use with caution! There is no excuse for crippling a perfectly handsome sentence with an unnecessary 'the fact that'.