Grammar Grasping the Grammatical Expletive |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Grasping the Grammatical Expletive

There is/are…, It is…: We often use these constructions in communicating, perhaps without being aware they have a grammatical classification, the expletive.

Expletives introduce clauses and delay sentence subjects. Unlike nouns and verbs, which have well-defined roles in expression, expletives do not add to sense or meaning; rather, they let us shift emphasis in sentences by using “filler.” For this reason, expletives are sometimes referred to as “empty words.”

There is/are and it is are the two primary expletive clauses. Because the words are unnecessary, sentences are tighter without them. Including the expletive depends on whether we want to delay the subject for emphatic effect. Note the nuance and intent in the following examples.

Sentence with expletive there: There is a toy airplane on the grass in the backyard.
Sentence without expletive: A toy airplane is on the grass in the backyard.

Sentence with expletive it: It is a fact that he is a former Elvis impersonator.
Sentence without expletive: He is a former Elvis impersonator.

The sentences with expletives stress the subject instead of the verb by postponing its normal syntactical placement. Examples of expletives for emphasis abound in English literature. Here is but one from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.”

Coleridge uses the expletive there to emphasize “weary time” by having it follow rather than precede the verb.

Expletives’ status as filler does have exceptions. For instance, when a sentence’s subject is an infinitive phrase or a that clause, starting the sentence with the expletive it instead of the subject sounds more natural.

Original sentence: To train at least four weeks for the event is crucial. (less natural)
Sentence with expletive it: It is crucial to train at least four weeks for the event. (more natural)

Original sentence: That she will win the local election is certain. (less natural)
Sentence with expletive it: It is certain that she will win the local election. (more natural)

The expletive it also serves constructions that do not have a concrete subject.


It is cold outside.

It is getting a bit loud over there.

It could turn out to be better than we thought.

In using and understanding expletives, we also want to identify when there and it are not operating as such. There frequently functions as an adverb, and it is often a pronoun referring to an antecedent.

There as expletive: There are six members at the meeting.
There as adverb: Six members are there at the meeting.

It as expletive: It is a good idea to save money for the trip.
It as pronoun: Saving money for the trip is a good idea. It is something we should do. (The gerund phrase Saving money for the trip is the antecedent to which It refers.)

As illustrated, expletives can add style and even needed duty to our writing. At the same time, we should include them with reserve. Like the passive voice, they can weaken writing if used too freely. The occasional expletive with thoughtful placement can help keep writing rich and resonant.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

9 responses to “Grasping the Grammatical Expletive”

  1. Lee M. says:

    I don’t understand the explanation for the placement of “there” in the Coleridge poem.

    • Compare the sound and feeling of “There passed a weary time” with the more economical “A weary time passed.” To us, the first sentence much more effectively conveys the feeling of a slow passage of time coupled with heavy tiredness.

  2. Stephanie Kiefel Patterson says:

    Good explanation and examples, especially for the exceptions of when expletives can convey particular nuances. The more I work on improving my writing, the more I discover that most grammar “rules” are more like guidelines–it all depends on the context and what the writer wants to express.

    • Almost all of us grew up hearing our teachers talk about the rules of grammar and punctuation. In practice, many are just guidelines. Near the end of the Introduction to the 11th edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, we quoted George Orwell: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

  3. Johnny Wink says:

    I think the expletive it ought to be accorded status as a part of speech rather than be termed a kind of pronoun. The article appears to agree, seeing as how it makes a distinction ‘twixt “it” as a pronoun and “it” as an expletive.

    • We understand the thinking behind your observation. An expletive is a meaningless word (there or it) that fills out a sentence’s structure and allows its subject to be delayed, as in There is a fly on the wall. Making the expletive it its own part of speech would obviously still leave the language with the expletive there, which would then become even more of a stray unit because it does not function as an adverb; it is simply an empty word.

      For this reason, we believe the arbiters of American English grammar will continue to allow the words to coexist rather than banish each to its own “empty” designation.

  4. Neal Herr says:

    What is the grammar rule for number when using expletives? For example, should one say,
    There are a table and chairs,
    There is a table and chairs,
    There is chairs and a table, or
    There are chairs and a table?

    • says:

      This is an example of how idioms can sometimes override grammatical accuracy. Our Rule 4 of Subject-Verb Agreement says, “As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and.” Although “There’s a table and chairs” (singular verb with plural subject) sounds more natural and colloquial than the correct “There are a table and chairs, “There are chairs and a table” sounds better than the alternative while also being correct.

  5. Dagny says:

    I was having a difficult time with this concept until I read the second paragraph here. The idea of delaying sentence subjects was the illuminating point. In the sentence “It is fun to jump in puddles,” I was seeing “it” as the subject, and “fun” as a predicate adjective, and I wanted to make “to jump in puddles” an infinitive phrase as objective complement, because I couldn’t figure out how else to parse it, even though I know PAs don’t take OCs! For some reason, the idea of “it” delaying the subject clicked for me, and gave understanding of the infinitive as the actual subject in this sentence. Thank you!

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