What is The Grammatical Expletive? 6 Reasons For Avoiding It

Understanding the grammatical expletive will help you write clearly and accurately. Our guide explains what it is and how to avoid this mistake.

“There’s a snake crawling toward us!” This sentence is an example of a grammatical expletive.

Although a person might argue any serpent slithering toward someone might cause swear words to come flying out of the person’s mouth, nothing profane is written in the sentence.

Unbeknownst to many writers, expletive sentence constructions exist that have nothing to do with profanity. 

While spoken language is prolific with these types of sentences, we can get away with using them because we partner our verbal expressions with voice inflection, tone, and body language. However, in written language, we should be careful in using expletive sentences.

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What is an Expletive Sentence?

What is the grammatical expletive 6 reasons for avoiding it

Based on the Latin word “expletivus” that means “serving to fill out” (Merriam-Webster), an expletive sentence is a sentence that uses the two words primarily “there” or “it” as filler words. They merely “fill” up a page with words without conveying meaning. Some grammarians even call these constructions “empty words.”

Simply put, an expletive in a sentence construction usually is the result of boring, lazy, wordy writing. While a time and place exists for using “there” or “it” as subjects, mostly they should be avoided as subjects. Why? Because they do not move writing forward in an interesting way. They offer no real meaning or purpose to the sentence. 

Here are a few more examples:

  • There are a number of reasons not to eat the chicken salad.
  • It is easy to knit a blanket.
  • There were hundreds of seagulls on the beach that day.
  • It was the teenager’s fault that the accident occurred.
  • There was a snow storm in that area of the country yesterday.

In each example, “there” or “it” is used to begin a sentence rendering the sentence uninteresting or lifeless. They act as the subjects, filling a sentence but bringing little meaning.

How To Avoid The Grammatical Expletive Sentence

Avoiding expletive sentence constructions comes down to syntax, or word placement. By re-arranging a word here or there and removing extra words, you can get rid of these unengaging sentences. Replace “there” or “it” with a stronger, interesting subject that already exists within the sentence.

A subject is a noun—the person, place, or thing—that is the topic of the sentence. Place the subject at the beginning of the sentence, thereby removing the empty, filler “there” or “it.” 

  • A snake is crawling toward us! (The subject of the sentence, “snake,” takes the place of the expletive “there is.”)
  • A number of reasons exist for not eating the chicken salad. (The subject “number” [of reasons] replaces “There are,” a filler construction.)
  • Knitting a blanket is easy. (The gerund subject “knitting” replaces “It is,” an expletive.)
  • Hundreds of seagulls stormed the beach that day. (The subject “hundreds” [of seagulls] replaces “There were.”)
  • The teenager was responsible for the accident. (“The teenager,” the subject of the sentence, replaces “It was.”)
  • A snowstorm occurred in that area of the country yesterday. (“Snowstorm,” the subject, replaces “There was,” an expletive construction.)

By revising the sentences, you as a writer have taken steps toward creating stronger, better writing. 

Six Reasons for Revising Expletive Sentences

When you revise these types of sentences, you’re doing more than switching out “there” or “it” for a subject. You are also…

1. Switching From Passive Voice to Active Voice

Removing the expletive by placing the subject at the front of the sentence automatically moves your writing from the passive voice to the active voice. An active voice shows the subject doing the acting, whereas the passive voice downplays the subject doing the acting. 

2. Getting Specific With Your Writing

The more specific you are with your words, the more grounded your writing is. Specific words bring meaning and focus. When you offer a specific subject, you provide the reader with focus. The reader can visualize a snake, seagulls, and so on.

3. Necessitating an Equally Interesting Verb

You will notice with “there” and “it” sentences, that the verbs are the “be” verbs “are,” “is,” “was,” or “were.” When the subject—a specific noun—is used, these “be” verbs are replaced with a verb that shows action.

With the examples above, “crawling,” “exist,” and “stormed” enable the reader to picture the snake crawling, reasons existing (imagine a list of reasons), and seagulls storming. 

4. Providing Grammatical Clarity for the Reader

A specific subject and verb enable the reader to clearly understand the message you are communicating without confusion or questioning.

5. Adding Interest

When your sentences are clear, your message grows interesting to the reader. He/she wants to keep reading. 

6. Engaging The Reader

Now the writing has become more of a conversation. Because the reader is interested in what you are saying, he/she reads more attentively.

He/she might agree, disagree, remember a real-life example, or imagine what life is like if your words are true. Ultimately, this engagement is what all writers want with readers: to think, grow, learn, and maybe even change. 

Exceptions in Using Expletives

With many rules, exceptions exist, and the same is true when using expletive constructions. Sometimes expletive sentences are used for emphasis or for offering a more poetic way of saying something.

Take these common examples from literature and film:

It was a dark and stormy night.”

In the 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, this expletive has become so well-known that it has become cliché to use. In its original context, however, the sentence builds suspense.

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…. “

In the 1859 introduction of A Tale of Two Cities, author Charles Dickens emphasizes the period in which he wrote these expletive phrases that ignites curiosity. 

There’s no place like home. 

While this simple expletive construction can be traced as far back as the late 1700s, American actress July Garland, playing Dorothy in the 1939 classic film, The Wizard of Oz, popularized the saying. Her dreamy eyes made everyone long for a place where they belong.

Grammatically Expletive Sentences: The Final Word

A good writer knows when to use the rules and when to ignore the rules, as part of their writing voice. For the most part, expletives in the English language should be avoided in writing.

Instead, writers should provide specific, interesting noun-verb combinations when they write. But now and then, a writer should feel the freedom to include an expletive construction, but do so with intentionality.

And let’s be honest, knowing when to use expletives, both in the syntactic and the profane sense, is essential.

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  • Tammy Tilley has taught Language Arts and college writing courses for over 35 years. She has written for almost as many years, primarily human interest stories for newspapers, magazines, online sources, and for the tourism industry. She makes her home in the Midwest.