Does an editor exist who doesn’t have a few pet peeves about the English language? I sometimes loftily like to think mine are better described as a passion for educating writers on how to improve their craft. But truthfully, they’re also eccentricities (and often mistakes) of the English language that annoy me—sometimes more, sometimes less. In this article I’ll focus on just one of mine: a certain type of expletive.
Most people, if they think about expletives at all, probably think these are curse words. That’s correct, but incomplete, and I’m guessing some readers will know that the definition of an expletive is much broader, but may not know exactly why.
The word expletive derives from the Latin “to fill out.” In fact, an expletive is any syllable, word, or word phrase that is either unnecessary to the correct syntactic structure of a sentence but can help to “fill it out,” or it has little value except to perform a syntactic function in a sentence. Four kinds of expletives can be defined:
- Interjections: curse words or profanity
- Expletive attributives (profanity): adjectives and adverbs
- Syntactic expletives (profanity) as verbs and nouns
- Syntactic expletives as subjects
1. The first is self-explanatory and obvious; curse words are filler words. Most of us know an interjection can be eliminated from a group of words while keeping the syntactic structure intact. For example, the word damn can be removed from this sentence without any change to the syntactic structure:
- Damn, this banana pie is delicious.
- This banana pie is delicious.
2. Expletive attributives are equally self-explanatory. They can also be eliminated without spoiling the syntactic structure of the sentence, but they perform the function of adjectival or adverbial intensifiers, like the word bloody in the title of this article. These words can easily be replaced with other, less offensive adjectives, depending on the style, subject matter, and audience:
- This banana pie is damned delicious.
- This banana pie is quite delicious.
3. Profane expletives acting as verbs or nouns are necessary for the syntactic structure of the sentence, although they can also be easily replaced with other, less offensive words if necessary. The use of “#$%&*!$” in my title is a typical example of an expletive as a verb, where I could easily substitute the verbs curse or banish, or even damn:
- Curse those bloody expletives!
- Banish those bloody expletives!
- Damn those bloody expletives!
Profane expletives acting as nouns don’t need much explanation. To avoid getting too graphic in this post, I’ll let your imagination replace the #$%&*$!:
- This camera is a stupid piece of #$%&*$!
- You crazy #$%&*$!
- I don’t give a #$%&*$.
4. But the fourth kind, expletives as subjects, are the ones I want to focus on here—the ones that make me a little peevish. These fall under the general category of wordiness, one of the biggest problems I encounter in stylistic and copy editing. I’m always cutting unnecessary words, recasting sentences in such a way as to use the fewest words to obtain the greatest impact. Sometimes this is called vigorous or robust writing (as opposed to flabby writing), and it’s really not that difficult to achieve.
This type of expletive’s great offenders are the words there and it when used as subjects followed by a verb form; e.g., there are, there is, there was, there has been, there were, it is, it was, it has been, etc. These words perform a syntactic function but often do little else except weaken the sentence.
Yet often, an easy fix exists. A rule of thumb I use is that if an easy fix doesn’t quickly come to mind, the construction can remain as is. Otherwise, banish the expletive! Here are some examples, followed by their more robust fixes:
- Weaker: There is a full moon shimmering in the evening sky.
- More robust: A full moon shimmers in the evening sky.
- Weaker: There is an easy fix for this problem.
- More robust: An easy fix exists for this problem.
- Weaker: There are many exceptions.
- More robust: Exceptions are many.
- Weaker: It has been a memorable day.
- More robust: The day has been memorable.
- Weaker: It is raining today.
- More robust: Rain is pouring down today.
Constructions that force a related expletive, the words that or who, are sometimes even more annoying. “There is . . . that . . .” and similar constructions serve only to sabotage sentences and contribute to flabby writing. Similarly, although names and pronouns are not generally considered expletives, they function as expletives in this kind of construction: “He is . . . who . . .” Here are some examples:
- Weaker: There is something in her character that worries me.
- More robust: Something in her character worries me.
- Weaker: It is an indisputable fact that Canadians are a polite bunch.
- More robust: Canadians are indisputably a polite bunch.
- Weaker: He was a person who was quick to empathize with others.
- More robust: He was quick to empathize with others.
- Weaker: There has been a recent spate of brilliant writing that can surely be attributed to editorial excellence.
- More robust: The recent spate of brilliant writing can surely be attributed to editorial excellence.
Interestingly, as in one of my examples above, an expletive form is commonly used to describe the weather, as in “It is raining today.” An argument can be made that it in this case is a pronoun for the weather, even though the word weather has not been mentioned. In these cases, it is sometimes referred to as “the weather it.” This construction is so common that I’m not bothered by it, nor would I necessarily call it flabby writing. Yet ways around it are usually not hard to find.
Exceptions abound to my above examples of expletives, particularly in poetry or stylized prose, where expletives are used to “fill out” the meter—for pacing, rhythm, tone, or for emphasis:
- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
- It is he who deserves to be rewarded, not his father.
You may have noticed by now that I’ve easily avoided using any subject expletives in this article. In my initial draft, I had at least four, but revisions were easy. Whenever you see a sentence begin with “There is” or “It was,” a red flag should go up in your mind. The point isn’t to avoid subject expletives altogether, but to become aware of them so that, if an easy fix quickly comes to mind, you can recast the wordier, weaker construction to a more concise, vigorous one.
I originally wrote this article for the October 2010 issue of West Coast Editor, the newsletter of the Editors’ Association of Canada’s British Columbia branch. It has been reproduced with permission here, with a few modifications.
♠ ♠ ♠
I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a short while before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!