Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video Delete extra words from your writing, part of Writing in Plain English.
- When you hear the word expletive, you may think of a profane, vulgar obscene word, and those kinds of words certainly have no place in business writing. However, we're focusing on another meaning. The linguistic definition of expletive is a word without meaning that is added merely as a filler. When we think of a filler of any kind, wood filler, tooth filling, we understand that something is being added merely to fill a space. In the instance of split wood and a cavity, that filler can be a good thing.
In writing, it's generally a bad thing. Sometimes fillers are used to refer to any word or expression that merely adds words to a sentence. In this lesson, I'm using filler specifically for the expletives: there and it. Those meaningless words that add nothing to the sentence except extra words. There is, there are, it is, are the opening words to watch for. Just to clarify, there is used correctly as an adverb, identifying a place.
Put the book over there on the table. And it is used correctly as a pronoun. Jane is remodeling her kitchen because it looked too old-fashioned. In this case, it clearly refers to the kitchen. Also be certain that the opening it is is a filler rather than a pronoun that refers to the previous sentence. This course is Writing in Plain English. It is one of my several courses about basic writing principles. In this example, it is used correctly as a pronoun-subject, followed by the verb is.
Because it correctly connects to the previous sentence, it replaces the noun, the course title, which is singular, so the singular verb is is used, resulting in the correct use of it is. Identifying and rewording to eliminate those fillers will always make your writing more concise. Very few times am I able to give you an always writing statement. My standard response to questions asked about writing or even grammar is, "That depends on the reader, the context, "and the purpose." I actually tell my students that if I ask a question they don't know the answer, to respond with, "That depends," and 95% of the time, that's the right answer, but this is in the five percent group.
You can always tighten your wording. Use fewer words by rewording to get rid of the indefinite it and there. I guarantee. So let's find ways to get rid of those expletives, those meaningless, merely take up space words. Look at these examples. It is the business owner who decides the intern's salary. Take a moment and think about how you could rewrite this example. Did you eliminate the it is like this? The business owner decides the intern's salary.
Here's another one. How would you change it? There are five members on this team. If you rewrote it this way, this team has five members, then you eliminated the filler there are. As you look at those examples, has the original sentence lost any of its intended meaning? The only change I see is fewer words that the writer has to write and the reader has to read. The same problem exists with the next example, except the sentence needs a different type of revising.
The original sentence is a complex sentence. Changing it to a compound sentence makes it shorter, stronger, and clearer. Any ideas on how you would revise this example? There was a loud noise, which frightened everyone, and the tenants ran to the basement. How many words were you able to delete? This revision is two words shorter. A loud noise frightened all the tenants, and they ran to the basement. Another problem with beginning a sentence with an expletive is that finding the subject and the verb can be difficult.
Why is finding the subject important? Because it has to agree with the verb in number. If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular. If one is plural, the other has to be plural. The reports are due by Friday. The report is due by Friday. Reports are, report is. Easy to find the subject and make the verb agree in those examples. Now look at these sentences. There is no friend like Sara. There are many people in the park. What's the subject of each of those sentences? Friend and people are the subjects.
If we try to revise the sentence so the subjects come first, we get no friend there is like Sara, or many people there are in the park. Sounds almost like Yoda in Star Wars. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will. (chuckles) Nothing against Yoda, but just a little awkward sounding. So another reason to remove the expletive is to make the subject easy to find. No friend is like Sara. Or maybe I have no friend like Sara.
One possible exception might exist for beginning a sentence with a filler. You might, and that's might, in all caps, have some compelling reason to use a filler, maybe for emphasis. For example, it is crucial that we meet tonight's deadline versus we must meet tonight's deadline. A writer could argue that the word crucial is stronger than must, and draws the reader's attention to that word. I still choose the second example, but the point is always that word choice should be intentional, and every word should be analyzed.
Is it the best word? The strongest word? The clearest word? The plainest word? Vague and wordy? Or concise and plain? Concise and plain win every time to qualify as plain English.
If you can write in plain English, you can save time, save money, and save face in communications. Start watching to learn how to make your writing more "plain": stronger, clearer, and more concise.
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- Understanding plain English
- Catching mistakes by reading aloud
- Simplifying sentences
- Using strong verbs and meaningful words
- Avoiding corporate jargon
- Finding the right voice and tone
- Editing flow and content
- Writing in a conversational style