During the Watergate scandal, newspapers printed transcripts of some of President Nixon’s secret tapes. “Expletive deleted” became a standing joke for the number of times they used it to omit the unprintable language. But “expletive” doesn’t necessarily mean foul language. It means filler, language that takes up space but adds no meaning.
Why weaken your writing by overusing expletives?
You can easily recognize an expletive: a clause starts with “it,” “there,” or “here,” without any antecedent. Usually the verb is some form of “to be.” We use expletives and other meaningless words all the time in speech. They give us time to think what to say.
Nowadays, at least, readers don’t want to read a bunch of padding. Especially in the first sentence of a paragraph, they don’t want to wade through unnecessary words to understand what the writer wants to convey.
Expletives and readability.
Writers even have online tools, such as the Hemingway Editor, that will give a readability score. Among other things, it counts the words in a sentence and declares longer sentences harder to read. You probably use as many words in your first drafts as you do in casual conversation. And if you run the draft through any of these tools, they will likely flag sentences with expletives among the ones difficult to read.
There is nearly always a stronger way to rewrite any sentence that has an expletive.Writers can nearly always find a stronger alternative to an expletive.
For one thing, “there” in “there is” (or “here” in “here is”) doesn’t refer to anything. If either word stands alone as a subject, only some form of “to be” can follow as the verb. And a very weak verb indeed. Bad writers find a plethora of ways to overuse “to be” even without resorting to expletives.
Grammatically, “there” or “here” in an expletive can lay a trap. The verb must agree in number not with the empty subject of the clause, but with whatever follows. “Here is [one of something]” or “there were [more than one of something].”
Although expletives most frequently occur at the beginning of a sentence, they don’t have to. “Everyone knew it was going to be interesting . . .”
Some examples of expletives
Expletives exist in English because we need them. Look out the window. Maybe it is raining. What is raining? “It” has no antecedent. But that’s the standard English idiom. We can’t describe weather without using expletives.
“It” as the subject of an expletive can take other verbs besides “to be” or some weather word.
- It is well known that the valedictorian failed third grade.
- It seems that George has trouble being on time.
An editor could simply chop off the first part of either sentence, beginning one with “the valedictorian” and the other “George.” But doing so would change the meaning of the sentences.
The first example uses “is” as an auxiliary verb in passive voice, so the verb is a form of “to know,” not “to be.” So it suffers both from an expletive and a passive construction. But simply lopping off the first five words deletes the fact that other people know the valedictorian’s struggles and triumph. “Know” needs an agent, even if it’s vague. “As many people know, the valedictorian failed third grade.”
The second example doesn’t say that George is always late, only that the writer or speaker thinks so. To avoid the expletive, it could be changed to “George apparently has trouble being on time.” We lose two words, but gain an adverb. The Hemingway Editor flags adverbs. Not all expletives have a stronger alternative. Or at least, an editor might have to take longer than it’s worth to find one.
So when you find you have used an expletive in your writing, consider alternatives. Unless the expletive is the best way to say what you intend, delete it.