Eliminating Expletives

by Kurt Woock

Expletives have nothing to do with four-letter words.1 But, once you know what they are, you might utter a four-letter word when you see an expletive in print. Learning to recognize and avoid them will increase the clarity of your writing.

Expletives are often placed at the beginning of sentences and, based on that position, sound as if they have something to do with the subject. They don’t. The combination of words to watch out for is “there” or “it” followed by some variation of the verb “to be” (is, are, were, etc.). A few examples:

There is a new restaurant in my town.
It’s raining.
It is going to be a busy day.
There are 35 senate districts in Colorado.

In each of the examples above, find the subject. Of course, that’s a trick question. There is no subject. (See what I did there?) The words “there” and “it” are expletives; linguistic imposters that look like subjects and smell like subjects but, in fact, are just shadows of the real thing. They are empty shells, devoid of all meaning and offering nothing to the sentence. Try to diagram the sentences, if you’d like. Or, try to explain what the “there” refers to or what function “it” serves. If you try, you’ll just spin in circles. Now, look at modified versions of the sentences above. In each example, the expletive was replaced with a real subject.

My town added a new restaurant.
The rain just started.
Today is going to be busy.
Colorado has 35 senate districts.

These sentences offer more to the reader. The meaning is more direct. So why do expletives exist at all?

Expletives are shortcuts. They can help a speaker deliver information quickly. If the context surrounding the expletive is rich enough to inform the listener adequately, it’s hard to even spot them when they occur. Especially when the recipient of the message is a listening audience, expletives can smooth out awkward constructions: “There’s no place like home!” is much more appealing than “Home is a place unlike any other!”

But writing is a more deliberate form of communication. We take the time to write and edit and rewrite until we arrive at the best way of saying something. The situations in which using an expletive is the best way to communicate something in writing are much rarer than in speech. The truth is, using an expletive won’t send your sentence or paragraph tumbling down into an unrecognizable heap. Instead of seeing them as an outright problem, look for expletives as an indication that you can make that sentence stronger.

Searching the statutes, you’ll find thousands of expletives. Some are more avoidable than others. “There is hereby created…” probably isn’t going anywhere soon. But many could be easily reworded for the better. The following passages from the C.R.S. contain expletives (including examples with expletives in the middle of a sentence) followed by a simple rewrite that makes the passage more direct.

BEFORE: If the commissioner finds that there are sufficient assets of the insurer located in this state to justify the appointment of an ancillary receiver…
AFTER: If the commissioner finds that the insurer has sufficient assets located in this state to justify the appointment of an ancillary receiver…
BEFORE: There are people in Colorado communities who are experiencing mental health or substance abuse crises…
AFTER: People throughout Colorado communities are experiencing mental health or substance abuse crises…

The changes are simple and don’t threaten the sentence’s meaning. A sentence that begins with a subject instead of an expletive gives the reader a firmer toehold for the rest of the sentence. An internal expletive that is subbed out for something clearer prevents readers from stumbling and missing the point you’re trying to make.

The effect a single change might have in an isolated sentence might seem marginal, but, when clear language is used consistently, a reader’s ability to read a text quickly and accurately becomes much easier.

1. Four-letter words aren’t expletives at all, actually. Depending on the word, it would be either an obscenity (if it deals with a bodily part or function) or a profanity (if it deals with a diety). But that’s a different story altogether.