Expletives

By Jacquelyn Landis

You’ve heard of indefinite pronouns—pronouns that don’t refer to a specific thing, place, or person. Examples include everybody, anything, someone, another, something, and a few others. Did you know, however, that there’s another kind of indefinite pronoun called an expletive? The English language has two such expletives: it and there.

Consider the following sentences:

It might rain tomorrow.

There wasn’t enough money to pay the rent.

In these sentences, it and there are not pronouns that refer to or replace any existing noun. Yet they’re necessary to fill in because each sentence syntactically requires a subject.

Sometimes we can’t avoid using an expletive, but if you can recast a sentence to get around it, it’s good to do so. You can expand the sentence to give it a clear subject, or if the surrounding context identifies a previous noun, you can repeat it.

The forecast calls for rain tomorrow.

Doctor bills had bled the family’s reserves. They didn’t have enough money to pay the rent.

If you have to struggle to eliminate an expletive, it’s fine to let it stand. It’s an innocuous part of speech that doesn’t jump out at readers or disrupt flow, and usually its meaning is clearly understood.

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5 Responses to “Expletives”

  • Brad K.

    So . . how does this refer to the infamous phrase, “expletive deleted”?

    As in, Barry said, “Those ungrateful [expletive deleted] unions are starting to annoy me!”

    I guess have been associating “expletive” with rude and scurrilous words.

  • Charity

    I was surprised by the term as well! I’ve always understood “expletive” to mean “bad word,” or something along those general lines.

  • Peter

    ‘s why people should still learn Latin 🙂

    ex- = out
    pleo = fill

    so an “expletive” is something that “fills out” your sentence. Words like “it” fill out the need for a subject; words like [expletive deleted] just fill it out like padding.

  • Brad K.

    Wow. That makes [expletive deleted] a simple editing mark, similar to [..] and [sic] rather than a euphemism for the, often dirty, word or words removed. [Expletive deleted] is simply a mark that some of the stuffing has been pulled out of the sentence.

    [Expletive deleted] just happens to only be used for scatological, obscene, or otherwise scurrilous wordage. Expletive, used this way, just refers to the “unidentified bit” that is removed.

  • Precise Edit

    Good points.

    Two of our most popular articles deal with these words (i.e., “there,” “it”) and how they are used as place holders for the rhetorical subject.

    Another expletive along the same lines is “here.”

    Expletives words fill a grammatical role (such as standing in for the subject) but don’t add meaning to the sentence. Thus, “it is true that we are rich” could be better written “that we are rich is true” or simply, “we are rich.” (That last revision uses the rhetorical subject as the grammatical subject, making it, in my mind, the better of the two possible revisions.)

    The word “expletive” is often used to mean “a bad word that we don’t use in polite communication,” but, in many cases, those words being called expletives are simply adjectives and adverbs, however impolite or offensive they seem to some readers.

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