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Understanding the uses of Expletives

The word Expletive is a common term used often in reference to another term considered obscene or not suitable for good use. In English grammar, however, expletives are quite useful to achieve good writing.

Expletive is a word or (sometimes) a short phrase often interrupting a sentence, primarily used to lend emphasis to the earlier part of the sentence or that part added after the expletive.

In so doing, it brings emphasis and focus to that part of the sentence, which is as a result of the forced pause created by the expletive, together with the expletive itself.

For clarity purpose we contrast the underlying effect of the following sentences:

  1. Example I
    Without Expletive
    • The fire was not quenched before the firemen arrived.
    With Expletive
    • The fire was not, in fact, quenched before the firemen arrived.

    If you observe carefully, you may notice that there is a natural tendency to emphasize the not and the quenched on each side of the pause in order to keep the thought flowing continuously.

    Most times, expletives are embedded near the beginning of a sentence where important element has been placed. However, the ending part of a sentence is the most emphatic position, while the beginning part of a sentence is the second most emphatic position. Let's survey another example:

  2. Example II
    • The prospect of becoming a movie star is, indeed, exciting, but the challenges involved is overwhelming.

    Expletive words and phrases are recognized as emphasizers; thus, they can be embedded at the beginning of a short sentence to signal the entire sentence as unusually important.

    • Obviously, the new design has a greater user interface.

    In cases where the sentenceOpens in new window is unusually short, the expletive can be embedded at the end rather than the beginning. However, when the expletive follows a noun or verb in a short sentence, the whole sentence is emphasized. When the expletive follows a modifier (adjective or adverb), the modifier has the tendency to receive most of the emphasis.

  3. Example IV
    Expletive following a noun
    • It was an interesting project indeed.
    Expletive following a modifier
    • The project was interesting indeed.

    As mentioned earlier, the forced pause created when the expletive interrupts the sentence generates much of the emphasis. For this reason, any kind of interruption in a sentence can cause the words around it to be emphasized. Thus, transitional words and adverbs, among others, can be used for emphasis. Observe the difference in rhythm, speed, and emphasis in the following pairs.

  4. Example V
    Without interruption
    • Many of the supplies had barcode problem.
    With interruption
    • Many of the supplies, however, had barcode problem.
  5. Example VI
    Without interruption
    • “Your procedures contradicted the authority’s recommendation,” he noted.
    With interruption
    • “Your procedures,” he noted, “contradicted the authority’s recommendation.”
Below is a list of the more common expletives in English language:
Some Common Expletives
after allin shortfor all that
generallyas I saidI hope
anywayin sumI suppose
I thinkof coursein brief
at leastnaturallyby the way
emphaticallyin other wordsdecidedly
definitelyto be sureon the whole
in anyway eventremarkablywithout a doubt
Use with Caution! 

Expletives can be instrumental and important device for adding emphasis and focus, but as with any device for clarity and emphatic expression; caution must be applied when using them, just so you don’t over use them. Too many of them might cause your work to appear overblown.

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