Eliminate There Is and Other Expletives

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Editors are notoriously snarky. Still, I do not think I am alone in finding the following editorial change surprising:

Their research identified multiple characteristics associated with resiliency.

There are multiple characteristics associated with resiliency.

I understand that the words “their research identified” can be replaced with a parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence. So the editor exercises sound judgment in excising those words for the sake of conciseness. The sentence itself is now a more authoritative statement of the author’s intentions, serving as an introductory or topic sentence, leading the reader to believe that the characteristics will be delineated.

However, the placeholder words “there are” detract from the author’s stance. Not only do they  make the statement wordier than necessary, they make it weak by relying on a “to be” verb and a meaningless subject. Compare with the easy (and obvious) correction:

Multiple characteristics are associated with resiliency.

The words “there is,” “there are,” and “it is,” are grammatical “expletives.” They are placeholders. In most cases, we can construct grammatically complete sentences without them. Many would argue that our sentences are stronger when we delete them. Whether that makes grammatical expletives more or less like the four-letter words we use when we are frustrated or angry, I will leave to another place and time to decide.

It is relatively easy to correct for expletives. Delete them. Ask yourself “who is doing what?” The answer becomes your subject and verb.

It is incumbent upon us to carefully weigh our options before voting.

We should carefully weigh our options before voting.

The reasons expletives creep into our writing, in my experience, are twofold. First, we do not always have the vocabulary we would like. We know that something substantive is happening, but we are not sure how to articulate it.

There is a lot of repetition in the document.

Paragraph three repeats the argument made in paragraph one.

Expletives indicate that we need to think through our content more critically. They demonstrate that we have not said what we mean to say, perhaps because we do not yet thoroughly understand our own meaning. Writing is a process of discovery, but the final product should be a completed map, replete with a legend and key.

Alternatively, we know the right construction, and we shy away from it, because it feels too blunt.

There are multiple options available to landowners who wish to develop in South Florida.

Landowners who wish to develop in South Florida should consider the following options.

If you are writing guidance documents, provide guidance. People do not want to hunt through language that is difficult to understand to figure out what they should do. In most cases, your audience wants to see the actions they should take.

I hope that these suggestions can help you find and eliminate expletives from your writing. I’m sure they will not eliminate expletives from my private editing process, but the energy, passion, and intense engagement with language all constitute the reason I love my work.

Comments

  1. I would argue that has a lot going for it. Your alternative specifically focuses on para 3, but the quoted statement requires examination of the whole document. Whoever is making the statement is not prepared to analyse the whole document, as that is the author’s job. There is a place for the general! (Expletive not deleted!)

    • Kat Phillips says:

      You mean general statements serve a purpose, too? 😉 I agree, but I prefer the amended statements to the original for all but the last, which has “the following the options” instead of “the following options.”

      As for the specificity in your selected example, you could try “Repetition found throughout the document may distract the audience” for a stronger general statement.

      Thanks for the good read, Ms. Baker.

  2. Nathan Allan says:

    Busted! So often I take writing short cuts rather than thinking about what I really mean and getting it out there with rich subjects and verbs. Thank you for the reminder, Michelle; you’re spot-on as always (it’s like you read our mail!).
    Nathan

  3. When I read a sentence that could be shortened and made more dynamic by adding a word or two, I’m reminded that the Queen’s English is precise, short and meaningful. As a natural born insightful linguist I can feel bloated reading these elongated sentences but very often trip over them because of my lack of academics, then I struggle to make it correct.
    Keep up the good work Michelle. We (I) need need your guidance.

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