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Those %!@# Expletives

on May 26th, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 26, 2013

The title notwithstanding, we’re not going to look at the swear-word kind of expletives, those four-letter words that can do a great job of rendering a character’s emotions at just the perfect time. What I want to talk about are the other expletives, the kind associated with grammar.

Expletives can be used to create emphasis but are often used instead as filler words by unsuspecting writers. Expletives are known as empty words, so that should give you an idea of how weak they can be. They add nothing to meaning for your text and can instead confuse the reader (by adding unnecessary words) or dilute the meaning of surrounding words.

I see a lot of expletive constructions in manuscripts and almost every time they drain a sentence of its power and impact by giving emphasis to the empty words instead of words with meaning.

So what are expletives?

They are filler words that allow writers to move other words to a different place in the sentence, into a place where (theoretically) the moved words will be stressed.

We’re going to restrict our discussion to expletives used to take the place of the subject in the opening slot of a sentence (though expletives can be used in other sentence slots). In this construction, the presence of the expletive signals the reader that the subject will follow the verb rather than precede it.

In practice, the expletive construction becomes simply one more way to word a sentence, typically a longer and impact-draining way.

The Basic Expletives

it is, it was, it had been (it followed by a form of to be)

there is, there are, there was, there were, there had been (there followed by a form of to be)

or, that, and as can also function as expletives under certain conditions, but we’re not going to look at their use in this article

Expletives in Use—Examples

There were unemployed men at the corner, looking for a day’s work.

There are both birds and squirrels eating from the bird feeder when I look outside.

There are six chairs around the dining table.

It was happiness that made Sam reach for a third beer.

There was an old song playing on the radio when the detectives stormed in.

There’s a ticking bomb in the center of the room.

It had been agreed upon that no one would leave before midnight.

It is the manager who sets the tone for meetings.

Note in these sentences the use of that and who that sometimes follows expletives—that and who are often indicators of expletive construction.

____________________________

Expletive phrases and constructions are not wrong; they have their purposes. But they can weaken the impact of your sentences. And if you use this construction again and again—especially at the openings to chapters, scenes, or paragraphs, where instead you should give prominence to the subject of the sentence—the effect is a cumulative dulling of impact.

Let’s consider the last example to see when the expletive construction works and when it doesn’t.

It is the manager who sets the tone for meetings.

If we want a sentence of fact, a stronger and more direct wording would be—

The manager sets the tone for meetings.

This uses fewer words, always a plus, and puts important words—the subject—in a more noticeable position in the sentence. This wording gets the message across quite clearly.

But if there’s more to the story, if a manager is being chewed out by her boss because she let a subordinate run away with a meeting, the original construction may be exactly what’s needed—

You can’t let your troublemakers run over you or their colleagues, Pam. It’s the manager who sets the tone for meetings.

In this sentence, the word manager is stressed, simply due to word order and where it’s placed in the sentence, and that stress is the whole purpose for wording the sentence this way.

You could use the wording without the expletive, since the meaning is clear, but the word manager, while stressed, is still not stressed as much as with the expletive construction.

You can’t let your troublemakers run over you or their colleagues, Pam. The manager sets the tone for meetings.

If Pam’s boss wants to stress the manager’s role, emphasize the word manager, the expletive construction is a proven way to do it.

As an alternative, you could use italics for emphasis, but you don’t want to always use italics  either.

You can’t let your troublemakers run over you or their colleagues, Pam. The manager sets the tone for meetings.

And consider Sam and his beer. If you want to emphasize that it’s happiness and not sorrow or boredom or alcoholism—or some other topic that had been under discussion—that has him reaching for another beer, the expletive construction works well. It puts emphasis on the word happiness as a contrast to the absence of emphasis on other possible reasons for him choosing another beer.

If, however, emphasis isn’t necessary, you’d want to reword. If no other reasons possible for his happiness had been mentioned, a statement of fact, without an expletive, is sufficient—

Happiness had Sam reaching for a third beer.

The expletive construction allows you to say something different from what a straight recitation allows. The meanings between the two sentence constructions are close, but not identical, and the shadings give you options for your writing. Use expletives if you truly intend to accentuate certain words.

However, this is just one option for word order and word location in a sentence. If you find yourself using this construction often, reword. Repeated use of any construction can be irritating. No, not can be; such repetition is irritating.

And refrain from using the expletive construction to start scenes and chapters, even paragraphs. In new scenes you want to capture the reader, give him something to latch on to right away. Beginning scenes with there were and it was fails to establish an instant image or emotion that strong nouns and verbs could establish instantly.

There are reasons to use these words to start sentences, either when they aren’t used as expletives, as in this very sentence, or as expletives. But there are few reasons to use the expletive construction to start scenes or chapters. Begin with words of consequence, not empty words. Make the reader notice a person or object at the top of new scenes. Rather than opening with vague and general, go for the specific and important.

Changing the expletive construction to a different construction allows you to write more engaging sentences, gives you a chance to use verbs other than to be. Makes you choose which words and images will come first.

Options for our examples—

There were unemployed men at the corner, looking for a day’s work.

A dozen unemployed men lounged at the corner . . .

Five unemployed men haunted the corner . . .

Unemployed men gathered at the corner . . .

At the corner, unemployed men gathered . . .

There are both birds and squirrels eating from the bird feeder when I look outside.

Both birds and squirrels are eating from the bird feeder . . .

Birds and squirrels are sharing the bird feeder . . .

Birds and squirrels fight over the bird feeder . . .

I see both bird and squirrels eating from the bird feeder . . .

There are six chairs around the dining table.

Six chairs circle the dining table.

It was happiness that made Sam reach for a third beer.

Happiness had Sam reaching for a third beer.

Happiness made Sam reach for a third beer.

There was an old song playing on the radio when the detectives stormed in.

An old song was playing on the radio . . .

An old song played on the radio as the detectives . . .

When they stormed in, the detectives noted the old song playing . . .

There’s a ticking bomb in the center of the room.

A ticking bomb waits in the center of the room.

A bomb ticks loudly in the center of the room.

In the center of the room, a bomb ticks loudly.

It had been agreed upon that no one would leave before midnight.

They agreed that no one would leave . . .

The team agreed that no one would leave . . .

Six against two, they voted that no one would leave . . .

It is the manager who sets the tone for meetings.

The manager sets the tone for meetings.

____________________________

Cutting out expletives reduces word count and contributes to sentences of stronger impact. So start cutting them.

MS Word makes searching for these phrases easy; see how many times you use such phrases. Look at each and determine if the expletive is actually useful, if it stresses the word you want stressed. If not, if it’s just a construction, a habit, you’ve fallen into, start rewriting. I won’t go as far as some style guides and say you should cut all uses of expletives—they can create variety as well as serve to put the stress on particular words—but I will suggest rewriting most of them. Especially those that open scenes or paragraphs and those that simply show up too many times.

Note: Both there and it have other uses in sentences and both can be the first word in a sentence without being expletives.

There in the next example is just an adverb, not an expletive. Note the difference in the way there is stressed in this sentence compared to the way it isn’t stressed in the earlier examples.

There’s the ring you were looking for.

It in the next example is a pronoun substituting for umbrella.

She picked up the umbrella. It was wet.

It, for such a tiny word,  has some unusual and powerful uses. Check out The Ubiquitous, Wondering It to see how it is used other than as a pronoun or as an expletive.

The Down and Dirty
Cut down on expletives. Rather than draining impact and power from your sentences, give power to them through word choice and word order, diction and syntax. Give readers words to grab on to, words that have them paying attention.

Use expletives only for a purpose and on purpose. And even if you’ve used them on purpose, rewrite if there are too many of them.

Create fiction that stands out for the right reasons.

Write fiction that makes an impact.

***

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Grammar & Punctuation

21 Responses to “Those %!@# Expletives”

  1. Kent DuFault says:

    Great article! Thank you.

  2. Rodolfo D.S. Cabael says:

    Excellent post – clear and easy to follow. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the article. Informative. I’m constantly on the hunt for articles to strengthen my writing.

  4. Kent and Rodolfo, you are most welcome.

    Suzi, I’m glad you found information you can use. I hope you’ll find other useful articles here as well. Thank you for letting me know you were here.

  5. Excellent examples. Thank you.

  6. Arlee Bird says:

    I’m probably often guilty of this. Now I’ll be looking a bit more closely to make sure I haven’t done this in my writing. Great clarification!

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

  7. Yvonne, I’m glad the examples work.

  8. Arlee, a lot of writers use this construction. The good news is that it’s easy to find and change. And the impact is almost always stronger with the change.

  9. Tom Bryson says:

    Good article, Beth, Thank you.
    I keep a list of ‘weasel words’. When I edit my writing, I use ‘find’ and get rid. I’ll add your expletives to my list.
    Tom

  10. William says:

    Ausgezeichnet, Beth. I’ll be coming back for more.

    Be well,
    William

  11. Tom, editing with a list of weasel words in hand is great. I’m guessing that what you call weasel words I call Hedge Words. And then there are words we use more often than we should simply because we like them or they’re our go-to words. Cutting or changing problem words is a necessary step in editing.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  12. Thank you, William. I hope you can find what you need for your writing here.

  13. Iola says:

    I often find unnecessary ‘that’s’ in my writing, and now I know what they are called – and what to do about them. Thank you.

  14. Iola, that is a sneaky word, worming its way in to all sorts of places. Take out the unnecessary use of that, but keep those you need to support a sentence. Thank you for letting me know you were here.

  15. Beth, great article as usual. I initially thought you were going to talk about the excessive use of adverbs. I like your name for these passive space-hogs. I came to my own reluctance to use “expletives” when I was writing for Suite 101 — back before they abandoned what few journalistic standards they possessed, along with their accessibility to readers and writers with print handicaps. The word count issue was my big motivation. Nowadays, I never use them in any part of action scenes or scenes with high emotional drama. Beyond that, I use them sparingly. Of course, I’m the one who thought she used exclaimation points sparingly until a friend called me on it. Find & Replace detected over 500 in a 93,000 word novel. Yikes! eliminating most of them was my last editing headache prior to publication. Sorry about the accidental post; my screen reader jumped out of edit mode for some reason, and before I realized it, I had accidentally hit submit.

  16. Donna, don’t worry about the other comment—I’ll delete it.

    I can’t claim credit for the name expletives—that’s what they’re called. But they can certainly weaken a section of text. They are useful at times, of course. But when they appear over and over, the effect is a dulling of impact.

    Five hundred exclamation points? That is a lot. Try not using any at all or, if they sneak in anyway, delete all of them before you do a read from hard copy. The when you read, determine whether or not there are lines that need them and then add them. You have better control of the number you’re including if you use this method.

    Unless you’re writing children’s literature or YA, consider using exclamation marks sparingly, if at all. You don’t want to sound melodramatic (unless that’s the style you’re going for).

    Don’t you love what we can do with letters and a few punctuation marks? Amazing that we can create worlds and influence emotions and reach others.

  17. I have been reading through your past articles and found this one.

    I sent in my submission packet for my second novel a week ago. What is the first line in my novel the agent will read?

    “It was the torchlight that revealed Aedrek’s target.”

    I should have realized that “the torchlight revealed Aedrek’s target” is a cleaner version. Thanks again for this blog. I intend to go through every entry, because so far I have read a half dozen articles and each one has produced an “a-ha” moment.

    No need to reply, but if other readers/would-be writers are reading this comment, it is worth your time to go back through the older entries. Don’t make my mistake by submitting the work you put a year of your life into without being sure it is correct in every detail.

    • Patrick, I’m glad you’re finding useful info throughout the blog—I hope you don’t find any info dated, even in the older entries. I want this to be a resource any writer of today can use.

      Using it was isn’t always a bad choice, but always consider whether it’s the right one. As for your sentence, you could make even other changes. Weak [or maybe glaring] torchlight revealed Aedrek’s target . . . If this is the opening of the novel, you might need a line or two to establish the setting before you introduce Aedrek, but then again, maybe not. Openings can begin in limitless ways.

      Thanks for the kudos.

  18. Hi! Patrick. I agree with you completely. In addition, I printed the whole text, and I’m still doing it. The first folder – 2″ thick – is full. The second also as thick, is half full. This discussion is the most comprehensive material I came across in my eleven months research
    about this enjoyable madness. Keep your torch burning. My best wishes to you.

  19. Rodolfo, I’m delighted to know the articles are helpful. That’s my sole intent for writing them. Thanks for letting me know.

    To make the writing/editing life a bit easier for writers, I’m writing a book on editing for those who plan to self-edit and self-publish. I’ve got a few chapters to finish before tackling my own edits, but I hope to have it available, in PDF form, for my readers in September. I’ll follow that with an e-version on Amazon.

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