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An expletive is a word or phrase inserted into a sentence that is not needed to express the basic meaning of the sentence.[1] It is regarded as semantically null or a place holder.[2] Expletives are not insignificant or meaningless in all senses; they may be used to give emphasis or tone, to contribute to the meter in verse, or to indicate tense.[3][4]

The word "expletive" derives from the Latin word expletivus: Serving to fill out or take up space.[5][6]

In these examples In fact and indeed are expletives:

  • The teacher was not, in fact, present.
  • Indeed, the teacher was absent.

In conversation the expressions like and you know, when they are not meaningful, are expletives.[7] The word so, used as an introductory particle[8] (especially when used in answer to a question), has become a common modern expletive. Oaths or profanities may be expletives, as occurs in Shakespeare:

"Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio."
Hamlet, act 1, scene 5, line 134[9]
"Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God if the devil bid you."
Othello, act 1, scene 1, line 109[10][11]


The word "expletive" is also commonly defined as a profanity or curse word, apart from its grammatical function. An early example occurs in a sermon by Isaac Barrow published in 1741.[12]

" … his oaths are no more than waste and insignificant words, deprecating being taken for serious, or to be understood that he meaneth anything by them, but only that he useth them as expletive phrases … to plump his speech, and fill up sentences."
Sermons on Evil-speaking, Isaac Barrow (1741)[13]

Not all profanities are grammatical expletives (and vice versa). For example, in the sentence, "The bloody thing is shit, hey":

  • "Bloody" is not needed and is a profanity; it is an expletive in both senses.
  • "Shit" is necessary to the sentence, but it is a profanity.
  • "Hey" is not a profanity, but it is unnecessary.

"Expletive deleted"[edit]

The popularity of the phrase "expletive deleted" derives from the Watergate hearings in the United States in the 1970s, where the phrase was used to replace profanity that occurred in the transcripts of conversations that were recorded in the White House.[14]

"Do" as an expletive[edit]

At the start of the modern English era the use of the word "do" as an expletive came into fashion with no fixed principle guiding it. It began to appear often in phrases such as "they do hunt" (rather than "they hunt"), and the practice was slow to fade from use. The lingering and indiscriminate use of the expletive "do" lent a point to Alexander Pope's jibe (which contains an example of "do" as an expletive):[15][16]

"While expletives their feeble aid do join
And ten low words oft creep in one dull line."
An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope (1711)[17]

Expletive negation[edit]

Expletive negation is a term that originated in French language studies. It refers to a sentence construction that contains one or more negations that, from a modern perspective, seem superfluous. An example is the "double-negative" in: "Nobody never lifted a finger to help her." Expletive negation is a standard usage in Old English, and in Middle English, as in this sentence, where, from a modern perspective, "not" and the negative marker "ne" seem to be not required:[18][19]

"They moche doubted that they shold not fynde theyr counte ne tale."
Golden Legend, William Caxton 1483[20]

Syntactic expletive[edit]

A syntactic expletive is a term used in formal linguistic theories. It is a term for a pronoun that is used at the start of a sentence or clause when the referent is not immediately known, but an argument for the verb is syntactically required. The basic meaning of the clause is made explicit after the verb. Common forms of construction for sentences that contain a syntactic expletive begin with "it is", "here is", or "there is". The expletive serves as the grammatical subject of the independent clause that it begins. In a clause like "it is raining" the referent of the pronoun "it" is not obvious, and is the subject of discussion and alternate theories among linguists.[21][22][23] Syntactic expletives have great significance in the study of the history of languages and cross-cultural comparisons.[24] The term is distinct from the expletives of traditional grammar in that a syntactic expletive has a particular syntactical meaning.[25]

Simple examples of syntactic expletives are the words it and there:

  • It is a hammer that is needed.
  • There are hammers in the toolbox.

Expletive, pleonastic, or dummy subjects have been crucial to syntactic argumentation. Their lack of semantic content, and their staunch grammatical aspect provide a method to explore differences between syntax and semantics.[26][27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Svenonius, Peter. Subjects, Expletives, and the EPP. Oxford University Press. p. 3-11. ISBN 978-0195142259
  2. ^ Moro, Andrea. The Raising of Predicates: Predicative Noun Phrases and the Theory of Clause Structure. Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780521562331
  3. ^ Lederer, Richard. Dowls, Richard. The Write Way: The Spell Guide to Good Grammar and Usage. Simon and Schuster, 1995. P. 69. ISBN 9780671526702
  4. ^ Lounsbury, Thomas R. "Expletives and Non Expletives". Harpers Monthly Magazine, volume 115, 1907. p. 710-716
  5. ^ Beaven, Peter. Building English Vocabulary with Etymology from Latin Book II, Book 2. p. 128. Lulu.com, 2017.
  6. ^ Halsey, Charles Storr. An Etymology of Latin and Greek. Ginn, 1891. p. 116.
  7. ^ Scott, A. F. Current Literary Terms: A Concise Dictionary of their Origin and Use. Published by Springer, 1965. p. 103. ISBN 9781349152209
  8. ^ "so, adv. and conj.". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  9. ^ Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Act 1, scene 5, line 134. Bloomsbury Arden (1982) ISBN 978-0174434696
  10. ^ Shakespeare, William. Othello. Act 1, scene 1, line 109. Arden Shakespeare 1996. ISBN 978-1903436455
  11. ^ Harris, Robert A. Writing with Clarity and Style: A Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary Writers. Taylor & Francis, 2016. ISBN 9781351968607 p. 15
  12. ^ Weiner, E.S.C. editor. Simpson, J. A. editor. "Expletive". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press; Subsequent edition 1991. ISBN 978-0198612582
  13. ^ [1] Barrow, Isaac. "Against Rash and Vain Swearing." Sermons on Evil-speaking. Cassell & Company, Limited, 1887.
  14. ^ Garner, Bryan. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford University Press, USA, 2009. p. 337 ISBN 9780195382754
  15. ^ Lounsbury, Thomas R. "Expletives and Non Expletives". Harpers Monthly Magazine, volume 115, 1907. p. 710-716
  16. ^ Partridge, Astley Cooper. Orthography in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama: A Study of Colloquial Contractions, Elision, Prosody and Punctuation. Edwin Arnold, 1964. p. 148-152
  17. ^ An Essay on Criticism (1 ed.). London: Printed for W.Lewis in Russel Street, Covent Garden; and Sold by W.Taylor at the Ship in Pater-Noster Row, T.Osborn near the Walks, and J. Graves in St. James Street. 1711. Retrieved 21 May 2015. via Google books
  18. ^ Lyeiri, Yoko. Verbs of Implicit Negation and their Complements in the History of English. John Benjamins Publishing, 2010. p. 2 ISBN 9789027285126
  19. ^ van der Wurff, Wim. Negation in the History of English. Walter de Gruyter, 2011. p. 295-.299 ISBN 9783110806052
  20. ^ Caxton, William. The Golden Legend. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. ISBN 978-1494451561
  21. ^ Blanco, Mercedes Tubino. Causatives in Minimalism. John Benjamins Publishing, 2011. p. 103. ISBN 9789027255624
  22. ^ Author: The New York Times. The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. Macmillan, 2004. p. 780. ISBN 9780312313678
  23. ^ Garner, Bryan. Oxford Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Oxford University Press, 2001. p. 341. ISBN 9780195142365
  24. ^ Vergnaud, J. R. & Zubizarreta, M. L. 1992. "The definite determiner and the inalienable constructions in French and in English". Linguistic Inquiry. 23(4). MIT Press. pp. 595-652.
  25. ^ Longobardi, Giuseppe. 1994. "Reference and proper names". Linguistic Inquiry 25. MIT Press. pp. 609-665.
  26. ^ Svenonius, Peter. Subjects, Expletives, and the EPP. Oxford University Press. p. 3-11. ISBN 9780195142259
  27. ^ Carey, Michelle. Developing Quality Technical Information: A Handbook for Writers and Editors. IBM Press, 2014 ISBN 978-0131477490 p. 163.