Wordiness. It’s the worst, right? At this current point in time, I seem to have lately found myself “made redundant,” as the Queen’s subjects are fond of saying, or, as we might describe it over here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, I do not at present contribute to the revenue of a business in exchange for salaried compensation, neither remotely via the World Wide Web nor in person via physical commute. What? You mean you’re unemployed? Why didn’t you just say so? There’s forty-five seconds of my life I’ll never get back.
In my last post, I talked about using parallelism to keep your writing smooth and easy to understand. Today’s post has a similar goal: avoiding certain sentence constructions to keep your writing engaging and easily digestible. And those sentence constructions we’re going to avoid are called expletives.
No, not what Uncle Ron hisses under his breath when his soufflé collapses. In grammar, expletives are words that play a role in a sentence without contributing any meaning. They just stand there taking up space, like when I would stare at the sky during kindergarten soccer practice instead of, oh I dunno, scoring a goal howsabout. The expletive construction sets up an expletive as the apparent subject of a sentence, in the form of the word it or there followed by the verb to be. You might also hear this called a dummy pronoun, a dummy subject, an empty subject, empty words, a filler subject, a syntactic expletive, an expletive sentence, an existential construction, and probably dozens of other names. I’m just going to stick to calling the whole mess the expletive construction.
Fun fact: The implied curse word represented by symbols (@#$%&!) in the title of this post has a name! It’s called a grawlix, and it comes to us from the world of comics a little over a century ago.
You hear expletive constructions all the time:
It is necessary that we stop categorizing Three Musketeers as acceptable candy.
There are multiple chinchilla babysitters that they are considering for their out-of-town trip.
In these sentences, it and there look like the subjects of the sentences. However, the subject of the first sentence is actually we, and the subject of the second is they; both are buried back toward the ends of their sentences. It and there are up at the front, making you think they’re the subject, but they don’t actually mean anything. It isn’t a pronoun referring to a noun, and there isn’t an adverb answering the question where. They’re both just empty words, hence the term “dummy subject.” If you want to make these sentences more concise, bring the subject up to the front and let a more powerful verb than to be convey the action:
We must stop categorizing Three Musketeers as acceptable candy.
They are considering multiple chinchilla babysitters for their out-of-town trip.
Sometimes, though, the expletive construction comes in handy. You might want to use it to regulate the passage’s flow, purposefully slowing the reader down for a beat between two strong ideas. Additionally, the expletive construction can create a sense of urgency by placing important words near the beginning of the sentence:
It is maddening and unacceptable that the age limit for the bouncy castle is 13.
There are those who say my love of grilled cheese borders on obsession.
If you were to reword the first sentence, you’d lose the emotional emphasis at the beginning and the zinger at the end:
At 13, the age limit for the bouncy castle is maddening and unacceptable.
If you were to reword the second sentence, you’d lose the dramatic buildup and intentional floweriness:
Some say my love of grilled cheese borders on obsession.
Plus, plenty of commonly used phrases use the expletive construction without a second thought:
It’s raining cats and dogs.
There’s no place like home.
You’d probably get some strange looks if someone asked you, “What’s the weather today?” and you responded, “Rain is falling from the sky.” Similarly, you’d probably be left wondering “what’s wrong with me” if you reworded the phrases above out loud:
Rain is falling from the sky, not unlike sky-diving cats and dogs.
Home has no equal.
So the expletive construction has its uses, if you employ it intentionally. But beware, using it too often can make a passage wordy and unengaging. The reader might lose track of what the real subject is when they’re repeatedly confronted by it and there dummy subjects. Not to mention, the verb to be just isn’t as compelling as more descriptive verbs.
Let’s look at a few more examples just to drive the difference home. (Full disclosure, I took the general structure of these examples from Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook and then mixed up the wording.) Notice how much more engaging these sentences are when we delete the expletive it or there, make the noun the subject of the sentence, and let a more concise verb (underlined below) do the work of conveying action:
✘ Weak: The focus of this fan group is Sam Waterston’s eyebrows.
✓ Better: This fan group focuses on Sam Waterston’s eyebrows.
✘ Weak: This is a complex Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic that is going to require months of planning.
✓ Better: This complex Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic will require months of planning.
✘ Weak: This Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic is controversial and has the potential to divide the Law & Order fandom.
✓ Better: This controversial Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic could divide the Law & Order fandom.
✘ Weak: There was a strong disagreement between the two group founders over the inclusion of nudity in the Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic.
✓ Better: The two group founders strongly disagreed on the inclusion of nudity in the Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic.
✘ Weak: Geri’s new battle scene is a valuable contribution to our Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic.
✓ Better: Geri’s new battle scene contributes greatly to our Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic.
✘ Weak: The results of our research are that society is ready, nay, hungry for a boundary-pushing Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic.
✓ Better: Our research shows society is ready, nay, hungry for a boundary-pushing Sam Waterston eyebrow fanfic.
To sum up, if you notice an overabundance of is, are, was, and were at the beginnings of your sentences (sometimes followed later by that, which, or who), take it as a red flag to double-check for expletive constructions. These verbs aren’t necessarily bad, but you might be able to restructure using more compelling verbs.
And hey, maybe indulge in a real expletive now and again. Research shows that swearing can reduce stress. 😉