My first college paper was docked a letter grade for containing two expletives. My parents were shocked to hear that their son, a Bible major, would use such language. What did I say? “It is” and “there are.”
Grammatical expletives are placeholders. They enable writers to construct verbless sentences. Although the Bible is silent here, most expletives are bad language and constitute a sin against the English language.
On a few rare occasions, writers do need to use expletives. Most good expletives boldly announce something’s existence or quality. For example, “there are three ways to….” or “there is nothing wrong with….” Since these constructions communicate very little, they should be used sparingly and almost always to begin a paragraph or a new thought. As a general rule, expletives should never appear in leads and theses because first sentences should be engaging and topic sentences should be clear. Expletives are neither.
Writers should avoid expletives whenever possible. Expletives usually contribute to wordiness and mark a lack of concrete thinking. Writers can often eliminate entire expletive sentences by just adding a couple adjectives or adverbs to a nearby sentence. For example, this paragraph could have begun, “there is sometimes no way to get around using expletives.” However, this entire ten-word sentence was rendered unnecessary by the two words “whenever possible” in the sentence that now begins the paragraph.
When expletive sentences cannot be eliminated completely, they can usually be made into concrete expressions by doing three things.
1. Find the Hidden Verb.
Most expletive constructions have verbs hiding as infinitives or participles. Look for an action word that has the word “to” in front or that ends in “-ing.” Then turn it into a normal verb by saying “someone ______.”
2. Discover the Character Doing the Action
Now that you have the verb, figure out to whom the “someone” refers. Who or what accomplishes the verb’s action? Remember that the character you’re looking for doesn’t have to be a person or thing. It can be another action word ending in “-ing” or “-tion.”
3. Recast the Sentence with Characters as Subjects and Actions as Verbs
Once you have found the character and action, create a sentence where the character is the subject and the action is the main verb. Then simply fill in whatever extra information you need. Your readers will always know “who” and “what” plus a whole lot more!
Stop using so much bad language. Save your expletives for when you really need them.