Author: Sydney Bauer
This lesson introduces the use of expletives as a rhetorical device.
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Introduction to Psychology

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Most people think that “expletives” is a nice way of saying, “swear words,” and that is true. But in writing, the word “expletive” takes on additional meanings.

Empty Words

Expletives are considered “empty words” or words that do not add any meaning to the sentence, and do not convey meaning on their own. A writer can use expletives to either change the structure/rhythm of a sentence, or emphasize the tone/emotion of a sentence.

Common Expletives:

  • There: delays the subject; allows the writer to reposition the main stressed syllable in a sentence. Rather than listing the subject first in the sentence, a writer might place “there is” or “there’s” to delay the appearance of the subject.
    • Read the following sentence out loud: A bird is in my hair.
      • You’ll notice the word hair is stressed: A bird is in my hair.
    • Read the following sentence out loud: There’s a bird in my hair.
      • You’ll notice that the word bird is now stressed: There’s a bird in my hair.
  • That: introduces a nominal clause, a clause that acts as a noun substitute
    • The original sentence: I hope it stops raining.
      • There is nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence. It’s a fine sentence, but some writers might use the word “that” between hope and it.
    • I hope that it stops raining.
      • The only purpose the word “that” serves is to make it clear that a nominal clause (it stops raining) is appearing next. It doesn’t have a grammatical role in the sentence, nor is it necessary for the sentence to make sense. It also changes the rhythm of the sentence (as we saw in the previous example).

  • As: introduces an object complement; plays no grammatical role
    • Original sentence: We elected him president.
      • Again, this sentence is grammatically correct; however, some writers might insert the word “as” between him and president.
    • We elected him as president.
      • “As” has the same function as “that” in the previous example. It isn’t necessary, and it plays no grammatical role in the sentence. It is simply a stylistic choice made by the writer. Again, it also manipulates the rhythm.



Expletives can be exclamations, asides, or interjections that do not add meaning to a sentence but instead emphasize the meaning.

  • I couldn’t imagine what could hold up traffic at 7:30 pm on a Sunday, but I came over the crest of the last hill, and—Goodness Gracious!—car was on fire!
    • The phrase “Goodness Gracious” doesn’t exactly convey meaning on its own. It is an exclamation that emphasizes the surprise the speaker felt when he or she saw the car on fire.


So, what’s the purpose of all these empty words?


  • Allow writers to
    • create suspense or tension by delaying information in a sentence
    • control the pace and emphasis within a sentence


  • Have the habit of
    • adding unnecessary wording
    • obscuring meaning
    • delaying the true subject
    • seeming weak in action or power