The Merry Grammarian

Eliminating Expletives (the other kind)

Let’s talk about expletives, shall we? No, I’m not talking about thosekinds of expletives—I’m talking about expletives in grammar—specifically, a type of sentence structure called expletive construction.

Expletive construction is when you start with a phrase that does not add any structural or grammatical meaning to the sentence, such as:

-There are
-There is
-There were
-It was
-It is

The word “expletive” comes from the Latin word explere, “to fill” — in other words, these phrases are just filling up space in the sentence, but offer no value or meaning.

For example: There were five people standing in line at the deli.

Using expletive phrases can make your writing clunky or vague. And the subject of the sentence often gets obscured, making it difficult for the reader to figure out who or what is doing the action.

Look how much clearer it is to say this: Five people stood in line at the deli.

Let’s look at a few more examples:

Expletive: It was beginning to snow.
Corrected: It began to snow.

Expletive: There are likely to be some people protesting the new speed limit.
Corrected: Some people will likely protest the new speed limit.

Expletive: It was then that I realized I had to quit my job.
Corrected: I realized I had to quit my job.

Whenever possible, aim to reduce or eliminate expletive construction from your writing. Your prose will be leaner and clearer—and your reader will be happier.