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Expletives Are Not Always Bad Words

Expletives Are Not Always Bad Words
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Many Americans consider Red House, a song by Jimi Hendrix, to be a great piece of Rock and Roll music.

"There's a red house over yonder (baby)..."

Today we will show you how one line from this song can give you a large amount of grammatical information. It can also help you say words and expressions correctly.

We will explore the strange case of expletives – words that have a grammatical purpose, but no real meaning.

Message from a teacher

After a recent Everyday Grammar story, we received a question from a teacher. The teacher asked about the grammatical structure of an Ernest Hemingway quote. The line has the words, "there are shadows of the leaves."

The teacher wrote:

"My students often ask about sentences such as Hemingway's "there are shadows of the leaves" with the expletive "there." What are your thoughts on "there" sentences that don't include an adverbial? How can we analyze them?"

Now, you might be asking yourself about the relationship between the teacher's question and Hendrix's song Red House.

It turns out that Hemingway and Hendrix have something in common.

But before we tell you how, we need to give you some definitions.

Explanation of an expletive

The word expletive has two meanings. It can mean something that people say when they are angry or in pain. These are called swear words. We are not talking about them today.

Instead, we will be talking about expletives in grammar. They are words that have a grammatical purpose but do not carry meaning.

One common place you will find expletives are in expressions called "Existential-there sentences."

Do not worry about the difficult name. Existential-there sentences are common in American English.

Consider the statement "Mice are in the house." The sentence has the subject, "mice," the verb BE, and an adverb phrase, "in the house."

The sentence could be changed to say, "There are mice in the house." This is an example of an "existential-there sentence." The word there takes a place in the sentence, but it has no meaning.

Here is one way to look at the sentence. There is the grammatical subject. It is taking the position that a noun phrase usually does. But, it is neither a noun nor a pronoun! It is an expletive.

In the sentence, "There are mice in the house," the word there becomes the grammatical subject. "Mice" becomes the logical subject, and the adverb phrase, "in the house" remains the same.

This structure is common in speaking and writing. Think back to the famous lines from Jimi Hendrix's rock song, Red House.

"There's a red house over yonder (baby)..."

The lines "There's a red house over yonder" have the same structure as the sentence about the mouse.

Now you might be asking yourself a question: What is the purpose of there? It fills a grammatical slot, but does not have meaning. Why would writers, musicians, and other people use it?

While we may never know the exact reason that Hemingway or Hendrix used there, we suspect it sounded better to their ears.

Martha Kolln is an English grammar expert. She notes that English speakers make their voices go up and down while they are talking. They often say the first word or two of a sentence quietly, then raise their voice. She calls this idea "end focus."

By using there at the beginning of the sentence, the subject moves to a spot later in the sentence – where the voice places stress on it.

Listen to the rock song again. Notice how Hendrix uses there to direct the listener’s attention to the logical subject of the sentence: red house.

"There's a red house over yonder (baby)..."

Hendrix could have said, "A red house is over yonder." The sentence would have had a similar meaning to the lines of the song. But it does not sound nearly as good.

Back to the teacher's question

Why wouldn't a speaker or writer include an adverbial phrase, such as "over yonder" or "in the house?"

First, they may have made a stylistic choice. Adverbials can appear at different places in a sentence. In other words, they are movable.

Second, sometimes writers and speakers will not use an adverb phrase when the location is known. Hemingway wrote "…there are shadows of the leaves" after he had already made it clear he was writing about a café.

Hemingway did not write "there are shadows of the leaves on the sidewalk next to the café," for example.

Why not? Hemingway made a stylistic decision. Sometimes stylistic choices do not follow traditional grammar rules or analysis.

Expletives and Style

English has expletives other than there. These include words such as it and do, writes English grammar expert Max Morenberg.

We will not study these expletives today. However, we will leave you with some advice.

You should be careful about how you use expletives. In general, one should not use sentences that begin with the expletive there too often. The overuse of there often creates unclear – or perhaps uninteresting – writing.

Remember that the expletive there does not have a meaning. If your goal is to be brief with wording, then you may not want to use the expletive there.

That said, try to listen and look for example of how speakers use expletives. Ask yourself how they build their sentences, and if they could have produced a sentence with the same meaning.

There are reasons to use expletives. Sometimes you should use them; sometimes you should not.

We will leave you with words from the musical, West Side Story.​
There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,

I'm Pete Musto.

And I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

grammatical adj. of or relating to words and how they are used

analyze – v. to study (something) closely and carefully

adverb – n. a word that is often used to show a relationship or some level of quality, time, place or number

phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

logical – adj. of or related to reasoning or using reason

shadow – n. a dark shape; an area of darkness

leaves – n. parts of a tree or plant

sentence – n. a declaration

verb – n. a word that expresses an action

stylistic – adj. of or related to the methods of creating something

location – n. the position or placement of something