Grasping the Grammatical Expletive

There is/are…, It is…: We often use these constructions in communicating, perhaps without being aware they have a grammatical classification, the expletive.

Expletives introduce clauses and delay sentence subjects. Unlike nouns and verbs, which have well-defined roles in expression, expletives do not add to sense or meaning; rather, they let us shift emphasis in sentences by using “filler.” For this reason, expletives are sometimes referred to as “empty words.”

There is/are and it is are the two primary expletive clauses. Because the words are unnecessary, sentences are tighter without them. Including the expletive depends on whether we want to delay the subject for emphatic effect. Note the nuance and intent in the following examples.

Sentence with expletive there: There is a toy airplane on the grass in the backyard.
Sentence without expletive: A toy airplane is on the grass in the backyard.

Sentence with expletive it: It is a fact that he is a former Elvis impersonator.
Sentence without expletive: He is a former Elvis impersonator.

The sentences with expletives stress the subject instead of the verb by postponing its normal syntactical placement. Examples of expletives for emphasis abound in English literature. Here is but one from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.”

Coleridge uses the expletive there to emphasize “weary time” by having it follow rather than precede the verb.

Expletives’ status as filler does have exceptions. For instance, when a sentence’s subject is an infinitive phrase or a that clause, starting the sentence with the expletive it instead of the subject sounds more natural.

Original sentence: To train at least four weeks for the event is crucial. (less natural)
Sentence with expletive it: It is crucial to train at least four weeks for the event. (more natural)

Original sentence: That she will win the local election is certain. (less natural)
Sentence with expletive it: It is certain that she will win the local election. (more natural)

The expletive it also serves constructions that do not have a concrete subject.

It is cold outside.
It is getting a bit loud over there.
It could turn out to be better than we thought.

In using and understanding expletives, we also want to identify when there and it are not operating as such. There frequently functions as an adverb, and it is often a pronoun referring to an antecedent.

There as expletive: There are six members at the meeting.
There as adverb: Six members are there at the meeting.

It as expletive: It is a good idea to save money for the trip.
It as pronoun: Saving money for the trip is a good idea. It is something we should do. (The gerund phrase Saving money for the trip is the antecedent to which It refers.)

As illustrated, expletives can add style and even needed duty to our writing. At the same time, we should include them with reserve. Like the passive voice, they can weaken writing if used too freely. The occasional expletive with thoughtful placement can help keep writing rich and resonant.

Posted on Wednesday, February 7, 2018, at 8:45 am

If you wish to respond to another reader's question or comment, please click its corresponding "REPLY" button. If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

4 Comments on Grasping the Grammatical Expletive

4 responses to “Grasping the Grammatical Expletive”

  1. Lee M. says:

    I don’t understand the explanation for the placement of “there” in the Coleridge poem.

    • Compare the sound and feeling of “There passed a weary time” with the more economical “A weary time passed.” To us, the first sentence much more effectively conveys the feeling of a slow passage of time coupled with heavy tiredness.

  2. Stephanie Kiefel Patterson says:

    Good explanation and examples, especially for the exceptions of when expletives can convey particular nuances. The more I work on improving my writing, the more I discover that most grammar “rules” are more like guidelines–it all depends on the context and what the writer wants to express.

    • Almost all of us grew up hearing our teachers talk about the rules of grammar and punctuation. In practice, many are just guidelines. Near the end of the Introduction to the 11th edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, we quoted George Orwell: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Leave a Reply to Stephanie Kiefel Patterson Cancel reply

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *