Monday, November 17, 2014

Expletives

No, expletive does not refer to the words deleted from the Nixon tapes. It has another meaning in the context of writing. Expletives are words used as structural fillers that have no reference and add no meaning to the sentence. That’s why I think of them as junk words. The most common expletives are there + verb and it + verb (there are, it was, for example). Other expletives are it took and it seemed.

Examples:

There is an old expression that says, “Know your enemy.”

There are more than a few males in this culture who believe that “she’s out there somewhere.”

Yeah, right.

Expletives overload text with too many state-of-being verbs, which makes the writing weak. Using expletives also leads to problems with subject-verb agreement and pronoun-antecedent agreement. More bad news: Using it with an indefinite reference is not acceptable in formal English (It says right here in The New York Times that . . .). Furthermore, using the expletive it and the pronoun it in the same sentence can be confusing. Readers have to pause for a moment to figure out what each it is referring to. Especially those whose native language is Swahili.

Constructions with expletives often take the form of There is . . . that, There are . . . who, and It was . . . who/that. They make a sentence wordy. Example:

It was the oldest boy who strangled the Geico gecko.

I’d sure like to do that. With malice aforethought and a perverted sense of glee.

Expletives are usually easy to eliminate. Look again at the example sentences written above. The expletive at the beginning of a sentence (or an independent clause) typically buries the noun/subject, which should be more prominently displayed up front. So you could change these sentences to read:

An old expression says, “Know your enemy.”

Many males in this culture believe that “she’s out there somewhere.”

See what I mean? Eliminating expletives makes sentences shorter, more direct, and more easily understood. Using an occasional expletive won’t trigger a midnight visit from the Grammar Gestapo, but you shouldn’t overuse them. If you have to turn a sentence into a pretzel in order to euthanize an expletive, fuggedaboutit.

Paul Thayer