What Is an Expletive?

By Mark Nichol

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What’s an expletive, and is it bad? There are several types of expletives, and though some may be considered offensive, others merely signal passive sentence construction or a perhaps desirable vagueness.

Readers of a certain age may recall, during the Watergate scandal, references to “expletive deleted” in discussions of audiotape recordings of conversations between Richard Nixon and certain government officials: Profanity (lots of it) was censored when the recordings were prepared for court proceedings. At that time, “expletive deleted” entered the lexicon as an ironic reference to profanity.

This phrase derives from the linguistic definition of expletive, which comes from the Latin term explere, meaning “to fill”; it refers to a meaningless word. “Expletive deleted” denotes the omission of a potentially offensive word, but that’s not the only usage of expletive.

A syntactic expletive is one that has no meaning but has a function in the syntax of a sentence. For example, in “There are several people waiting,” there is a syntactic expletive; it could be omitted, and the sentence could be revised to the more active construction “Several people are waiting.”

Likewise, in “It is understood that you are to be selected,” for example, it is an expletive standing in for the fact that an understanding exists. However, in this case, a more active revision — such as “Everyone understands that you are to be selected” — tramples on the subtle nuance of the original version, which (perhaps wisely) avoids naming who is doing the understanding.

The it in “It is getting cloudy” is sometimes referred to as the expletive it or the weather it. (The latter label derives from the fact that in such constructions, it often refers to the weather or a feature of the weather.)

An expletive attributive is a (perhaps mildly) profane or obscene word used as an intensifier that doesn’t actually modify another part of speech, although it does indicate strong emotion, as in “I can’t find the damn hammer!” A type of expletive attributive is the expletive infixation, in which an expletive is inserted between two syllables of a word for dramatic effect, as in “That was an in-frickin’-credible concert!”

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4 Responses to “What Is an Expletive?”

  • Ric Veness

    I guess that puts the ‘well’ that many use as the first word of an answer, and ‘got’ when used with have in ‘have got…’ in the expletive class.

  • John

    Could not the sentence “It is understood that you are to be selected” be better revised to read “That you are to be selected is understood”?

  • Tessa

    How about words such as ‘actually’ and ‘technically’ used inappropriately?

  • Jamie

    Ric, would not ‘so’ be an unnecessary conjunction–akin to beginning a sentence with ‘but,’?

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