Grammatical expletives are not dirty words, but they can be equally offensive. Grammatical expletives are empty words that take up valuable space and dilute the power of your sentences.
This article from Just Publishing Advice tells us how to target these words in your writing and how to formulate your sentences so that each word does a job.
You probably use the grammatical expletive very often in your writing. But what is it?
The definition of the word expletive is an oath or a swear word. But in grammar, it means to use a word or phrase to fill out a sentence without adding to the meaning or sense.
The word derives from the Late Latin word, expletivus, which means to fill out.
When you know what you are looking for, you can quickly edit these words with no meaning.
What are expletives in grammar and writing
They are empty words that occupy space in a sentence but with no meaning or action.
The most common forms use there or it as the subject of a sentence.
When a sentence starts with either of these two subjects, the verb that follows is usually the verb to be.
The forms are almost the same.
There is/are/was/were/will be
It is/was/will be
When you start a sentence with any of these combinations, the words say nothing.
As with many writing rules, there are exceptions. For example, you can certainly use grammar expletives when you want to add emphasis or delay the main subject of the sentence.
However, in general, the best practice is to remove them when you can.
Grammatical expletive examples
Here are some example sentences that start with the expletive.
- There were more than one hundred and fifty people at the wedding.
- It was a very violent storm that hit the city last night.
- There are so many politicians riding on the gravy train.
- It is my fault that we lost the match.
- There are lots of reasons why you shouldn’t take the job.
- It will be my 21st birthday in June.
- There is no way you can learn all the grammar rules.
As you can see from these examples, the first words give no meaning, sense, or action to each sentence.
How to fix grammatical expletives
If I use the sentences above, you have some options to change each one.
All you need to do is start the new sentence with a subject that is a person or thing, and if possible, follow it with an active verb.
There were more than one hundred and fifty people at the wedding.
- More than one hundred and fifty people attended the wedding.
- The wedding was attended by one hundred and fifty people or more.
It was a very violent storm that hit the city last night.
- A very violent storm hit the city last night.
- The city was hit by a very violent storm last night.
There are so many politicians riding on the gravy train.
- So many politicians are riding on the gravy train.
- The gravy train is ridden by so many politicians.
It is my fault that we lost the match.
- We lost the match because of me.
- I lost the match for my team.
There are lots of reasons why you shouldn’t take the job.
- You shouldn’t take the job for lots of reasons.
- You’ve got lots of reasons not to take the job.
It will be my 21st birthday in June.
- I’m turning 21 in June.
- My 21st birthday is in June.
- In June, I’m celebrating my 21st birthday.
There is no way you can learn all the grammar rules.
- You can’t possibly learn all the grammar rules.
- Don’t think that you can learn all the grammar rules.
With a little practice, it is almost always possible to rewrite a sentence without changing the meaning.
When to use the expletive
You all know this famous phrase. It is the opening line written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the novel Paul Clifford (1830).
It was a dark and stormy night.
When you think about how you would change this sentence, the possibilities don’t seem right. The night was dark and stormy; it doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Although the expression may have originated before the 14th century, it was made famous by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
There’s no place like home.
In the Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens uses the grammatical expletive to emphasize each element of the sentence.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …
As you can see, using expletive phrases have a use. So while you are not competing with the greats of literature, you know that it is a tool you can use.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to using either common or grammatical expletives.
But usually, a little goes a long way. When you are aware of the rules, you can then decide to edit them out or leave them as is.
Good writing is about making good grammar and syntax decisions.
Of course, it always helps if you know a grammar rule before you break it.
If your intention is to use a cleft sentence, create rhythm, add emphasis, or anticipation, then go ahead and use expletive phrases.
But when you are editing and polishing your writing, look for instances where you might be overusing them.
If there is no reason to use the grammatical expletive, it’s probably best to rewrite the sentences and make them more active and interesting.