For example, the famous line from The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.” This assertion interrupts normal speech and brings the reader’s attention to specific words. Usually, assertions do not affect the meaning of a sentence or contribute to the content within it. Rather, it changes the grammar and the order of the words in a sentence. It can make a sentence feel more formal depending on how the words are arranged. Some common syntactic expletives are:
- It is my father who worked hard on this project.
- Here are the awards they won at the competition.
- There are four houses for sale in this neighborhood.
- There’s nothing we can do about our government.
- There are other kinds of expletives, as are seen in the following examples:
- She was, in fact, present for the entire lecture.
- I was happy with the results, indeed.
- So, we thought that we’d like some time off.
- I had a hard time, like, figuring out what to say.
Definition of Expletive
The word “expletive” comes from the Latin word “to fill.” It is a grammatical construct that usually appears at the beginning of sentences or clauses. Although, as the above examples demonstrate, that’s not always true. An expletive is not necessary for a reader’s understanding of the sentence. Instead, it’s there to help emphasizes a particular phrase or part of a phrase. They are sometimes referred to as “empty” words in that they don’t change the meaning of the sentence. The word “expletive” is often used to define a profanity of a curse word as well.
Examples of Expletives in Literature
One of the most famous opening lines in literature can be found in Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s story of manners is based around the lives of the Bennet family, specifically Elizabeth Bennet and her relationship with Mr. Darcy, a mysterious rich suitor. As her novels all are, this one focuses on marriage and the relationships between men and women who are more incredibly independent, especially for their time. The first line of the book contains an expletive. It reads:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
“It is” is an expletive that does not add anything to the sentence besides changing the overall structure of the sentence. It places additional emphasis on the “truth universally acknowledged.”
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Another incredibly famous opening line can be found at the beginning of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities. It is a historical novel based in London and Paris during the French Revolution. It was published in 1859 and told the story of Mannette, a French doctor whose imprisoned in the Bastille and finally released in London. The first lines of the novel read:
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.
The use of expletives is quite clear in this excerpt. Dickens uses “It was” at the start of eight different clauses in this single sentence. This example conveys a sense of rhythm to the text and ensures that the reader puts equal weight on darkness and light, best and worst, and so on. As the passage continues, the writer also uses expletives like “There were” and “It was.”
Explore Charles Dickens’s poetry.
John 4:14 NIV
In the New International Version of the Bible, there is a great example of an expletive in John 4:14. The lines read:
[…]but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
Here, the word “indeed” is used as an expletive. It places additional emphasis on the fact that the water will “become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” It also serves to make the language feel more formal.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In Part VI of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ Coleridge’s best-known poem, there is a great example of an expletive. The stanza reads:
Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
Here, the word “indeed” is used to emphasize the sighting of the “light-house top.” It’s something the Mariner has been waiting a long time for. It’s the first bit of hope he’s had since the whole disaster began.
Read more of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry.
Today, expletive negation is commonly referred to as a double negative. For example, the sentence “No one never did anything to help me” or “Not one of those shirts never fit me.” These additional negations are superfluous. They take up space as today’s expletives do but do not add to the overall meaning of the sentence. They are most often used to convey someone’s dialect or when a specific character does not speak grammatically.
Why Do Writers Use Expletives?
Writers use expletives to place additional emphasis on particularly important clauses or sentences. Starting a sentence with an expletive like “so” or “indeed” ensures that the reader is going to pay extra attention to it. It singles the line out as more important than those around it. For example, a line that starts with “so” might be leading to a conclusion or be used as a summarizing statement.
Related Literary Terms
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Literary Argument: the argument of a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.