Expletitives deleted

There’s nothing like a ‘there is’ phrase to suck the energy out of a sentence
By David Galef | Published: February 24, 2012


“There’s a large animal in Jim’s apartment,” reads the first line of a story I’m eyeballing. Not bad, I think, waiting to hear what creature lurks in Jim’s fourth-floor walk-up. But what a waste in the opening words! I don’t get to that beast till halfway through the beginning sentence, and that’s a shame. What’s the problem here? Language specialists call phrases like there is, there are and it is expletives, though not the swear-word variety. They’re used to fill out a sentence, but add little substance. They also depend on the verb to be, which isn’t nearly as active as some other possibilities.

Let’s recast that opening sentence: “A large animal roams Jim’s apartment.” If you don’t like action—if the animal is a giant sloth, say—try “sleeps in” or just “inhabits,” but almost anything is better than a dampening expletive. There is delays the payoff and adds extra syllables to a line that reduce the impact.

Deleting expletives is particularly important in setting, where you’re tempted to write sentences like “There were seven jars of tomato sauce on the counter” and “There was a large, antique mirror hanging over the mantelpiece.” No. “Seven jars of Emile’s arrabbiata sauce crowded the edge of the counter.” “Alarge, antique mirror hung over the mantel.” As you see, you can recast many expletive sentences by deleting the offending words and rearranging what’s already there.

Deleting expletives means not writing dull sentences like this: “There was a puzzled frown on the man’s face.” Delete the expletive and insert a killer verb: “A puzzled frown crept onto his face.” OK, so “crept” isn’t so scintillating, but at least we’ve cut the dead words and gotten right to the point: that expression. (Another issue is to ask why “on the man’s face.” Where else do frowns occur? But that’s another kind of waste.)

You can also apply the expletive-deleted rule to pep up action scenes: “Suddenly there was a loud bang from the alley” can easily become “A loud bang reverberated from the alley.” Sometimes just a flick of the editing scalpel is all it takes: Original: “There was a crowd amassing on Irving Street.” Altered: “A crowd was amassing on Irving Street.”

Delete expletives from your character descriptions, too: “There was a large teardrop on the tip of his nose.” Make it, “A large teardrop hung from the tip of his nose.” Or reword “There were flaws in her personality” to “Her personality contained flaws,” though the sentence would read even better if you itemized a few: “She had a jealous streak that crisscrossed with her sour disposition.”

Bear in mind that we’re not talking about incorrect grammar. There is has a long history, many writers use it a lot, and some political speeches seem to depend on it. Sometimes it adds rhythm and balance, as in “It’s a wise monkey that knows its own mother.” And occasionally an expletive is part of an almost inescapable idiom, as in “It’s raining.” But let’s face it: You can scrap most of these phrases. We’re talking here about style and efficiency: getting to the point and getting the reader’s attention.

Fix the following sentences:

“NASA, there’s a problem with our radar.” (“NASA, we have a problem with our radar.” Even better, since “have” is usually a boring verb: “NASA, our radar has gone blooey.”)

“It’s time we did something about Angie’s gingivitis.” (“We really need to do something about Angie’s gingivitis.” Better: “Annie’s gingivitis has gotten so bad she needs to see Dr. Kosmo.”)

“There’s a nice restaurant there.” (Two times there! Why not specify location and type, and fix that bland adjective nice: “Amityville has a great Mexican joint called Tío Juan.”)

So go back to your old manuscripts and delete all those expletives. You’ll be amazed how much it can tighten up the prose. When should you do it? There’s no time like the present. No, scratch that expletive. Do it now.

David Galef has published more than a dozen books, as well as essays and reviews in such publications as The New York Times and The Village Voice. His latest is the short-story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman.