Instructional Materials for Craig White's Literature Courses

Expletives—but not the [deleted] kind!

Expletive sentence construction

(There is, are, etc.; It is . . .)

(a.k.a. "empty subject + linking verb";
 expletive syntax; syntactic expletives)

(see also strong nouns & verbs)

Overall point: Expletive construction or syntax"There is," "it was," a natural and familiar way of speaking and writing. Especially in writing, however, expletive syntax proves wordy, dilatory (delaying), and empty of content. If strong nouns and verbs are a key to good writing, "There is (etc.)" goes opposite: "There" means nothing, and "is" just is.

Example: "There are some friends of mine I want you to meet." > Better: "I want you to meet some friends of mine."

Grammatical warning: The grammar of an expletive construction can be tricky. Because "there" is an empty subject, the verb agrees with a following noun.

NOT: "There was many people waiting," BUT: "There were many people waiting," OR: "There was one person waiting."

EVEN BETTER: "Many people were waiting," OR "One person was waiting."

An alternative and more widely known meaning for the word "expletive" is a profanity or exclamatory curse (e.g., "Drat!" or worse). The Nixon White House Tapes made this term and usage famous. Nixon was unusually foul-mouthed. In place of his curses and obscenities, transcripts of the tapes inserted "[expletive deleted]."

How did two such different meanings for "expletive" attach to the same term? According to R. F. Ilson in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), an expletive was originally "an expression used to fill out a line of verse or a sentence, without adding anything to the sense." in a similar sense, "expletive" as curse or swearword is an interjection into a sentence that adds no idea-content to the sentence (though it may add emotion).

In syntax or sentence construction, however, "expletive" describes a grammatical arrangement of words in a sentence.

Such expletives may be called syntactic expletives—words that fill a syntactic or sentence-function role but add no content to the sentence's meaning.

The subject-verb forms "There is," "There are," "There were," etc. are the most common forms of expletive sentence constructions, but also similar constructions:


"Here is . .  . " (+ was, would have been, will be, is going to be, etc.); e.g., "Here is a problem that you've never encountered before."


"It is . . . " (+ was, would have been, will be, is going to be, etc.); e.g., "It was going to be interesting to see how she solved the problem."


"This is . . . ," "That is . . . ," "These are . . . ," "Those are . . . ,"


Martha Kolln, Understanding English Grammar, 1998: "Rather than providing a grammatical or structural meaning as the other structure-word classes do, the expletivessometimes defined as 'empty words'generally act simply as operators that allow us to manipulate sentences in a variety of ways."


An occasional synonym for "empty words" (e.g., "there" or "it" in an expletive construction) is "dummy words." The "there" in an expletive construction is sometimes called "existential there" because "there" asserts that someone or something exists. The construction as a whole may be called an "existential sentence."


Examples: "It is important to remember what we are here to do."


"There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun . . . ."

"There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness." (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

"It is essential that you study hard for the exam."

"There are ten desks here."

"It is raining here now."

"Here is the test to find whether you advance to the next level or not."

These sentences all sound normal and are not wrong in and of themselves. If, however, you write one sentence after another in this form, your sentences become monotonous in form and you waste more and more words without meaning. Also you do not want to use such constructions in places where strong meaning and leading are expected, e.g. at the beginnings of paragraphs.

What's wrong with expletive syntax?

Academic writing works to state theses and data as effectively as possible in as few words as possible. Professors prefer papers with sentences that are clearly structured and not overburdened with unnecessary words.

The expletive construction adds words without adding meaning. Though an expletive may be normal and acceptable here and there, overuse (especially at important moments) indicates a lazy writer whom an industrious reader might prefer to avoid reading.

When is the expletive acceptable or not?

Most readers won't notice an occasional expletive form, so don't be self-conscious about using one when it works, but get in the habit of reviewing your writing and questioning such usage, especially since revisions are usually easy.

Starting an essay or paragraph with an expletive construction wastes your reader's attention when such attention is freshest. Demanding readers or editors may regard such usages as signs of a lazy or untrained writer, leading them to put your text aside for another.

When it works: Sometimes a few empty words are helpful. Such moments may occur particularly after a complex and demanding passage, when the writer wants to prevent exhaustion on the reader's part and to help the reader refocus for the essay's next move. A few empty words can breathe some air into a tightly written passage.

How to revise? (If you've written an expletive construction but want the sentence to hop instead of just lie there, how do you change it?)

Usually the words you need are all there already. You only need to cut out the words that aren't helping.

"There are those who will say that . . . ."


"Some will say that . . . ."

From six words to four: faster phrasing with no loss of meaning.

Grammatical hazards of Expletive Syntax

Normal rules of subject-verb number agreement do not apply to the expletive construction, though in everyday speech (as opposed to formal writing) disagreement between subject and verb can be commonplace in the rush of putting words together.

Operative rule for subject-verb agreement in expletive syntax:

In all other sentences, the verb agrees with its preceding subject. The next two lines are correct:

Singular present tense: "he, she, it runs . . . ."; Plural present tense: "they run . . . ."

Singular present tense of verb "to be": "he, she, it is"; Plural present tense of verb "to be": "they are . . . ."


In expletive construction sentences, the verb agrees not with its preceding subject ("There . . . ") but with the noun or noun phrase that follows.

These examples are correct:

"There are some things I can't resist." ("are" agrees with "things")

"There is a town unlike any other." ("is" agrees with "town")

"There happen to be only two pieces left." ("happen" agrees with "pieces.")


"There's a lot of people who say no to that." ("a lot of people" are, just as "a lot of people say," not "a lot of people says")

"There's about a dozen of those selections left."

Again, in everyday speech no one would have trouble processing these errors, and correcting someone who spoke thus would be counter-productive. Besides, colloquial speech can be exceptional, e.g.

Question: "Who is there who could help her?"
Answer: "Well there's always you."
Technically the verb should be "are," but anyone who said "there are always you" would sound strange. In writing, you could quote such an expression as an example of everyday speech, but formal writing should find ways around such problems.

Some examples and rules on this webpage have been developed from the following sites:,,,


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