Hey! So… lesson six of Unboring Your Writing! We’re looking at expletive constructions today. Hooray!

Expletive constructions sound technical and boring, but they’re not! Promise! They’re also not swear words, as the name may suggest (I hope you’re not too disappointed).

Expletive constructions occur when you use a phrase that essentially means nothing. You often use them when you’re stalling, trying to think of something to say, or if you’re unsure of how to introduce a topic.

Some common expletive constructions:

it is / there are / there is / there were etc.

And they’re considered expletive constructions when they don’t refer to anything; they’re simply placeholders.

They’re not grammatically incorrect, and sometimes it’s really hard (or impossible) to get rid of them without creating a mutilated sentence. And that’s okay. But if you can get rid of an expletive construction, your sentence is usually going to be better off because of it.

Check out these examples:

There are lots of people out there.

Lots of people are out there.

It is your responsibility to walk the dog.

Walking the dog is your responsibility.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

People universally acknowledge, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

(Ok, so Jane makes a good point—fiction often has different rules. I think her version is more poetic! Also, sic re: the commas.)

Now, how does this have anything to do with your writing? Like we learnt in the ‘passive and active voice’ lesson, when you’re writing blog posts (or anything similar), you’re usually trying to be as direct as possible. You don’t want your writing to be bloated, because nobody’s going to enjoy it, and they're possibly going to stop reading.

Expletive constructions get in the way of your writing being direct. They clutter your sentences, adding words that have no meaning and really shouldn’t be there. They also often bring a host of problems with them, including passive voice and nominalisations (more information about nominalisations in this post), making your writing even weaker.

Better to just avoid them if you can.

How can you pick them up and fix them? First of all, get to know your expletive constructions. When you notice one pop up, consider whether it’s pointing back to anything. Does the ‘it’ or ‘there’ refer to anything? For example, in the previous sentence, I used ‘it is’, but it’s not an expletive construction because it’s referring to ‘one’ (that is, an expletive construction, which I introduced in the previous sentence).

If you do find an expletive construction, you can usually get rid of it by finding the subject of the sentence (that is, the doer in the sentence). For example, in the Jane Austen example above, the subject was nowhere to be found—passive voice in action! By figuring out what the subject was, we could remove the ‘it is’ and replace it with the subject.

Exercise: Pick a random blog post or piece of writing and comb through it for the expletive constructions I mentioned earlier. Can you find any? If so, can you fix them? (Tweet me if you managed it!)

Want more? You're in luck. I wrote a whole workbook about the stuff I'm covering in this mini-course (and loads more, too). It will help you to feel more confident in your writing skills and grammar knowledge... in a not-boring way. Some of the feedback so far: 'OMG. What a beautiful book!' Find out more here.

PS: Want the Unboring Your Writing workbook? It's a printable and fillable PDF workbook with the same exercises as these lessons, plus answers. You can find it here.