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Expletives: they aren’t what you ****** think they are

Posted by Wendy Wood on 16th March , 2021 in Grammar
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I swear I have learned so much more about grammar since I’ve started writing Super Grammar. I mean, I know the mechanics – I have since Mr Holton drummed them into my head in the fifth grade – but what I didn’t realise is that I’d forgotten so many of the terms used to talk about grammar. (Diacritical marks, I’m looking at you.) I’ve now found another term I’d long ago forgotten: expletives.

My fifth-grade mind would have snickered, but I’m not referring to that kind of expletive. In grammar expletive means a word that doesn’t add to the sense of a sentence but serves a merely structural role – as a noun element that is either the subject or an object of a verb. An expletive relies on the rest of the sentence to supply the needed context. In other words, the expletive shifts focus to the predicate to supply the true subject of your sentence. Sentences using expletives imply a “who” or “what” question that is answered by the subject.

Using an expletive in practice

But what does that all mean in practice? The two most common expletive clauses are it is and there is/are. For example:

  • It is a fact that Dan loves Dolly Parton.
  • There is a dog toy in our backyard.
  • There are many reasons for my delay.

Expletives are sometimes referred to as “empty words” because generally sentences are tighter without them. “Dan loves Dolly Parton” is more concise than the sentence above using it is.

However, thinking of expletives as “empty words” does have exceptions. For example, when the subject of your sentence is an infinitive phrase or a that clause, beginning the sentence with the expletive it sounds more natural. Consider these sentences:

  • To meet the deadline for Super Grammar is vital. (More formal and unnatural)
  • It is vital to meet the deadline for Super Grammar. (More natural way of speaking/writing)
  • That I will meet the deadline for Super Grammar is certain. (More formal and unnatural)
  • It is certain that I will meet the deadline for Super Grammar. (More natural)

Expletives can also be used in sentences that don’t have a concrete subject:

  • It is hot outside.
  • It could be later than we thought.

Expletives can weaken writing if used too often, but an occasional expletive with thoughtful placement can add style and sometimes even perform a necessary duty in your writing. Just don’t use the wrong kind of expletive!

Wendy Wood


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