Expletives Deleted

If you, like me, are of a certain age, you can remember a time when most respectable publications did not print profanity. When it was necessary to acknowledge the presence of one of those forbidden seven words (warning: explicit content), publishers often inserted the phrase [expletive deleted]. Bolder editors would sometimes dare to give the reader a nudge, nudge, wink, wink by printing the first letter of the word in question, then replacing the remaining letters with asterisks.

But there’s another kind of expletive out there.

And as a matter of fact, I just used it, without having to censor anything. Did you catch it?

If your sentence starts with a variation of Here is… There are… It is… – that is a grammatical expletive. Expletives can weaken your writing because the words are empty and don’t add any meaning to the sentence.

Now that we know what the expletive is, how do we fix it? Unlike its racier cousin, we can’t redact this kind with asterisks. Usually you’ll have to rewrite the sentence. Let’s look at my example from above:

But there’s another kind of expletive out there.

This sentence is interesting–but a rewrite could make it even more provocative:

 Not all expletives are four-letter words.

Now you’ve really piqued your reader’s curiosity. He or she is bound to think, hey, I know all those words! What have I missed all these years? (And undoubtedly that reader will be disappointed to find out that we’re talking about grammar here, not some super-secret ultra-dirty language.)

Other possibilities for rewriting a sentence with an expletive include starting with the word “you” and including a verb (an action word). For example: 

Here is a list of the seven forbidden words: …

A possible rewrite with this solution:

You should not use these seven words: …

However, this doesn’t mean that you can never use an expletive. As with other topics we’ve covered, such as the use of adjectives and adverbs, you should carefully consider whether using an expletive is the best vehicle for the nuance you want to express. Used sparingly, expletives can be effective literary devices, as you can see in this article.

Feel free to comment below about expletives you find “in the wild” and whether you think they were used to good effect! And by the way, do you know what the term is for a string of symbols used to replace profanity, like on our upset emoji above? It’s called a grawlix

Blast Off!

Ever since my husband and I moved to Orlando, Florida, at the beginning of December last year, we’d been looking forward to attending space launches, since Cape Canaveral is less than an hour’s drive from our home. A few weeks ago we got to fulfill that lifelong dream not just once, but twice – we saw the launch of Space X Falcon 9 on December 16th – AND the launch of the Atlas V with the Starliner capsule on December 20th!

A launch takes a lot of power and an incredible amount of support work on the ground. Everything is directed to one goal: to get that rocket into the air with no wasted effort.

It got me thinking how writing with maximum impact should be like a rocket launch: blasting off powerfully with no fooling around. We often load up sentences, especially at the beginning, with empty hedge words that could result in a mission abort: 

 It seems that the U.S. still leads the world in space technology.  

This sentence barely makes it off the pad. Starting off with “It seems that…” tells the reader nothing. If you, the writer, are confident of your facts, just say so:

The U.S. still leads the world in space technology.

If there are valid reasons that the statement needs to be qualified, spell them out:

Although the U.S. still seems to lead the world in space technology, China’s recent advances in rocket design may soon threaten American dominance.

(Note that I don’t know if this sentence is accurate; I’m just making up an example to illustrate my editorial point. Any rocket scientists out there are more than welcome to correct my facts.)

So be on the lookout for these hedge words, among many others. Notice that some can have variations:

almost; apparently; comparatively; fairly; in part; it could be argued that…; it seems that…; I/we/most people think that…; I would argue that…; nearly; partially; predominantly; presumably; rather; relatively; seemingly; so to speak; some say that…; somewhat; sort of; to a certain degree; to some extent

Please feel free to comment below on your efforts to jettison hedge words from your writing. For a very long time I struggled with “apparently.” I’m mostly over it now, although sometimes I still come close to having to scrub the mission if I try to write when I’m tired!