On expletives and dummy subjects

There are “expletives,” and there are “expletives.” There are reasons to avoid both kinds. It is important that the previous sentence uses “avoid,” not “banish completely.”

It is more familiar to think of “expletive” as a swear word, as in the “expletive deleted” of the Watergate era. There are still sensitive eyes out there, so many news organizations still refuse to print objectional words. There are some times when news organizations use the word “expletive” in parentheses or brackets within a quote instead of the expletive itself, as in “I was like (expletive). This is not good, dammit, I kind of like this one. This is just a total bummer.”

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It is clear that that use of “expletive” conforms to the definition Merriam-Webster gives: “an exclamatory word or phrase especially: one that is obscene or profane.”

There is another M-W definition for “expletive,” though, one that pertains to grammar and writing: “a syllable, word, or phrase inserted to fill a vacancy (as in a sentence or a metrical line) without adding to the sense especially: a word (such as it in ‘make it clear which you prefer’) that occupies the position of the subject or object of a verb in normal English word order and anticipates a subsequent word or phrase that supplies the needed meaningful content.”

It is saying, in other words, that this kind of an “expletive” is a kind of filler word. It is the kind of word that can begin a sentence without allowing a reader to know what the sentence is supposed to be about until much later.

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There is a previous column about “There is.”

There is more than one way to describe this “expletive,” as our friend Madam Grammar reminded us recently on Twitter:

It is her 2016 posting that calls “There are/It is” “dummy subjects,” which lead off the sentence, “pushing the real subject back and making a sentence needlessly wordy. Another pitfall is that sometimes the pronoun ‘this’ or ‘it’ has an unclear antecedent, so readers get confused.”

Let us now drop the pretense of trying to start every sentence with variations of “There is” and instead talk about how to avoid it, or decide when you really need to.

Most of the time, sentences beginning with those words are flabby, momentarily tricking the reader into thinking that “There” or “It” is the subject of the sentence, when it’s not. Take this sentence about cats:There are many instinctual behaviors that they haven’t lost, and the more we can encourage these in play the happier our cats will be.” It contains 24 words, and we don’t know where “there” is until we process more of the sentence — it’s in the cats. Instead, try this: “Cats still have many instinctual behaviors, and the more we can encourage these in play the happier our cats will be.” It is three words shorter, and clearer.

That last sentence might be a case where “It is” is fine in the leadoff position. The sentence itself is short, and it is clear what “it is” is referring to: the previous sentence. Others might be where the “There is” is referring to a general condition and not a specific thing. You really can’t rewrite the sentence “There’s no place like home” to something like “No place is like home.” It doesn’t sound right, grammatically or idiomatically. But much of the time, eliminating “There is” gets the reader into the meat of the sentence more quickly.

That goes for the middle of the sentence as well. Something like “Worldwide in the Arctic, there are roughly 25,000 polar bears in what scientists consider to be 19 subpopulations” could easily become “Worldwide in the Arctic, roughly 25,000 polar bears live in what scientists consider to be 19 subpopulations.” Stronger verbs make for stronger sentences.

There are only a few times when you want to begin a sentence or paragraph with “It is” or “There are.” (You rarely want to begin a sentence or paragraph with “It is” or “There are.”) There are even fewer times when you want to begin a story with one of those. (You even more rarely want to begin a story that way.) It is worth repeating part of the previous column: (Part of the previous column is worth repeating): “Every time you find yourself writing ‘there is’ or ‘there are,’ think about whether you could get along without a ‘there’ there. It might better help get your point across.” It is equally true for “it is.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.