What Are Expletives in English Grammar?

Expletives in English
Both senses of the term expletive are illustrated in these sentences.

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In English grammar, expletive (pronounced EX-pli-tiv, from Latin, "to fill") is a traditional term for a word—such as there or it—that serves to shift the emphasis in a sentence or embed one sentence in another. Sometimes called a syntactic expletive or (because the expletive has no apparent lexical meaning) an empty word.

There is also a second definition. In general usage, an expletive is an exclamatory word or expression, often one that's profane or obscene. In the book Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language (2005), Ruth Wajnryb points out that expletives are "frequently uttered without addressing anyone specifically. In this sense, they are reflexive—that is, turned in on the user."

Examples and Observations of the First Definition

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

Full (Content) Words and Empty (Form) Words

  • "It is now generally accepted that the absolute terms (full words and empty words) and the rigid division of the dichotomy are misleading: on the one hand, there is no agreed way of quantifying the degrees of fullness which exist; on the other hand, the only words which seem to qualify as empty are the forms of be, to, there, and it—but only in certain of their uses, of course, viz. be as copula, infinitival to, there and it as unstressed subject 'props.' . . . Most of the words commonly adduced as empty (e.g., of, the) can be shown to contain meaning, definable in terms other than stating grammatical contexts . . .. (David Crystal, "English Word Classes." Fuzzy Grammar: A Reader, ed by Bas Aarts et al. Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • "I don't believe them, Buttercup thought. There are no sharks in the water and there is no blood in his cup." (William Goldman, The Princess Bride, 1973)
  • "When you're not here to look at me I have to laugh at your absurd powers." (Rosellen Brown, "How to Win." The Massachusetts Review, 1975)
  • "It's a pity that Kattie couldn't be here tonight." (Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop. Gerald Duckworth, 1978)
  • "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." (attributed to Albert Einstein)

Expletive Constructions: Stylistic Advice

  • "[A] device for emphasizing a particular word (whether the normal complement or the normal subject) is the so-called expletive construction, in which we begin the sentence with 'It is' or 'There is.' Thus, we can write: 'It was a book that John gave' (or simply 'It was a book'). But we can also write, throwing stress on the normal subject: 'It was John who gave the book.' . . .
    "Be on your guard against drifting into expletive or passive constructions. Obviously we achieve no emphasis if . . . we begin a good half of our sentences with 'It is' or 'There is' . . .. All emphasis or haphazard emphasis is no emphasis." (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Modern Rhetoric, 3rd ed. Harcourt, 1972)

Examples and Observations of Definition #2

  • "Oh, my goodness! Oh, my gracious! Oh, my golly! What a narrow escape! What a near miss! What good fortune for our friends!" (Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, 1972)
  • "Holy mackerel. You're Aaron Maguire's son? Good griefGood heavens. Your family's practically a dynasty in South Bend. Everybody knows they're wallowing in money." (Jennifer Greene, Blame It on Paris. HQN, 2012)
  • "His arms give way and he crumples onto the grass, shrieking and laughing and rolling down the hill. But he lands on a stiff little thorn branch. Shit bugger bloody, shit bugger bloody." (Mark Haddon, The Red House. Vintage, 2012)

"Expletive Deleted"

  • "(1) Originally, an expression used to fill out a line of verse or a sentence, without adding anything to the sense. (2) An interjected word, especially an oath or a swearword. At the time of the Watergate hearings in the U.S. in the 1970s, during the presidency of Richard Nixon, the phrase expletive deleted occurred frequently in the transcript of the White House tapes. The connection between original and derived meaning is caught in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1987), explaining the expletive use of f---ing as an adjective in I got my f---ing foot caught in the f---ing door: it is 'used as an almost meaningless addition to speech.' Here, it is meaningless at the level of ideas but hardly at the level of emotion." (R. F. Ilson, "Expletive." The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)


  • "The places where expletives may be inserted, as a matter of emphasis, are closely related to (but not necessarily identical to) the places where a speaker may pause. Expletives are normally positioned at word boundaries (at positions which are the boundary for grammatical word and also for phonological word). But there are exceptions—for instance the sergeant-major's protest that I won't have no more insu blood ordination from you lot or such things as Cindy bloody rella . . .. McCarthy (1982) shows that expletives may only be positioned immediately before a stressed syllable. What was one unit now becomes two phonological words (and the expletive is a further word)."(R.M.W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, "Words: A Typological Framework." Word: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, ed. by Dixon and Aikhenvald. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Expletives in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/expletive-grammar-term-1690694. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Are Expletives in English Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/expletive-grammar-term-1690694 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Expletives in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/expletive-grammar-term-1690694 (accessed May 30, 2023).