Unpacking CMOS: Expletives

Jordan Wagenet Editing Tips, Grammar, Writing Tips

Welcome to our first installment in a new blog series that unpacks lesser known guidelines and complex rules from The Chicago Manual of Style, Seventeenth Edition.

Many consider “good writing” to be a matter of simply following grammatical and spelling rules, but writing style guides provide broader advice for topics such as titles, citations, and even the handling of words for foreign loans. The Chicago Manual of Style (known as CMOS for short) is one of the most respected style guides. Since 1906, CMOS has helped writers and publishers clarify content with formatting, grammar, and syntax guidelines.

In addition to being our style guide of choice here at the Scribe Source, CMOS is also the most comprehensive of the major style guides. As such, users can sometimes feel lost when exploring Chicago‘s extensive list of topics. To make CMOS more digestible, we’re beginning a new blog series that will focus on some of the lesser known or more complex guidelines for syntax that will help you clarify your writing.

Today’s topic is expletives.

What the #*@% Is an Expletive, Anyway?

While expletives are vulgar words in casual speech, according to CMOS 5.239, they have another meaning as well:

Though expletive commonly denotes a swearword {expletive deleted}, in grammar expletive signifies a word that has no lexical meaning but serves a merely structural role in a sentence—as a noun element. 

—Section 5.239, Chicago Manual of Style, Seventeenth Edition

The most common expletives are there and it.

Spotlight: There and It as Filler Words

Let’s start with an example, which we’ll return to: It’s unsafe to drive too fast around a curve.

It is generally a pronoun for a genderless or inanimate object, and there is an adverb for the location of an object. In these contexts, these words are appropriate. As expletives, however, it and there dilute our writing’s power by creating indirect phrases. They take the subject position in a sentence, redirecting our true subject to the predicate position. The result is exhausting and wordy writing.

What the #*@% is an expletive, anyway? While expletives are vulgar words in casual speech, according to CMOS 5.239, an expletive is a word whose only function is to provide structure, but not meaning, in a sentence. Find out more… Click To Tweet

Expletives’ occasional use can help our writing read more naturally and can provide sentence variety, but they become problematic when used often or in close succession. Because of this, expletives should be avoided when possible.

Let’s dig further and examine the following sentences:

  • It’s unsafe to drive too fast around a curve.
  • It’s going to be a hot summer.
  • It’s cheaper eating at home than dining out.
  • There are many people at the meeting.
  • There were many questions from the crowd.
  • The critically acclaimed art film failed with wider audiences, and it’s amazing that the Academy thought it was Oscar-worthy.

These read naturally, and you might intuitively understand what each sentence is saying, but they are wordy. Can you identify the actual subject of each sentence? Let’s rewrite them:

  • Driving too fast around a curve is unsafe.
  • The summer’s going to be hot.
  • Eating at home is cheaper than dining out.
  • Many people are at the meeting.
  • The crowd had many questions.
  • The critically acclaimed art film failed with wider audiences, but the Academy amazingly thought it was Oscar-worthy.

The sentences are shorter and more direct. Each subject is in focus and committing the action in the predicate. Sentence structures are more varied.

Expletives are common syntax structures that tend to blur sentence meanings. Avoiding them clarifies our thoughts and creates more efficient writing. Click To Tweet

We fixed the expletive problem by stripping each sentence down to its parts. Additionally, as in our compound sentence, when expletives were used in close succession, the subject became unclear, and the meaning got lost entirely. Clarifying the second phrase by replacing the expletive with an adverb applied to the action removed any ambiguity.

In summary, expletives are common syntax structures that tend to blur sentence meanings. Avoiding them clarifies our thoughts and creates more efficient writing.

 

Having challenges navigating the complexities of CMOS guidelines? We have a team of skilled editors who are knowledgeable in CMOS, in addition to other style guides. Let us do the busy work of editing for you!

About the Author

Jordan is a freelance copywriter and business blogger who joined the Scribe Source team in 2018. While she is a prolific B2B and B2C content developer, she also has a master’s degree in geological sciences and is adept at developing scientific content. Jordan also works as an English tutor, teaching literary analysis to youth. She can frequently be found working on her own fiction or helping other writers develop their stories.