Wordy Expletives

......writing that beats around the bush

This is a work in progress: lots of writing, formatting, revising, proofing left to do! — David McMurrey


Thales (7th-6th century BC). Considered to be the father of science.

Another style problem involves the expletive—variations of there is and it is. As with every other style problem in this book, expletives can be useful—in this case, for emphasis. However, expletives can also create unnecessary words, dulling the clarity and sharpness of your writing.

Not Those Watergate Expletives

It is a strange thing to realize that two simple, innocent pairs of words (and their accomplices) can cause so much trouble. If you were around in the Watergate era, you recall the phrase "expletives deleted." That's not what we are talking about here. Expletives here mean any variation of there is or it is:

it is there is
it was there are
it has been there was
it may have been there were
it could have been there have been
it might be there may have been
it must have been there have been

Sometimes these expressions are useful for emphasis, but more often they create wordiness. It's easy to revise them: just yank the expletive and other related words like "that." Here are some examples:

Weak, unnecessary expletive: Acid rain usually forms high in the clouds where there are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that can react with water, oxygen, and oxidants.

Notice how the expletive there are forces the additional word that later in the same sentence.

Revision: Acid rain usually forms high in the clouds where sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water, oxygen, and oxidants.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: There are "acidic" and "basic" extremes that describe chemicals, just like there are hot and cold extremes that describe temperature.

Multiple expletives can gang up to gum up a single sentence!

Revision: Acidic and basic are two extremes that describe chemicals, just like hot and cold are two extremes that describe temperature.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: There are many local water treatment operators who are trying to discourage the discharge of used antifreeze to publicly owned treatment works because it is the recycling of used antifreeze that is becoming more widespread.

How awkward and wordy can it get?

Revision: Many local water treatment operators are trying to discourage the discharge of used antifreeze to publicly owned treatment works because recycling used antifreeze is becoming more wide spread.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: To determine whether there is a conflict between two trademarks, the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office determines whether there would be likelihood of confusion, that is, whether there would be a likelihood that relevant consumers would associate the goods or services of one party with those of the other party as a result of the use of the marks at issue by both parties.

Three—count 'em—three expletives in one sentence!

Revision: As for potential conflicts between trademarks, the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office determines whether confusion might occur, that is, whether relevant consumers might associate one party's goods or services with those of another because both parties use the trademark.

Why do we have wordy set phrases like these? Many of us have the need to beat around the bush a bit before we say or write what's on our mind. Expletives can become semiconscious habits—we don't realize we are gumming up our writing with them. And it could be that—wait, stop! you've got the disease too!—And, some writers may think everything needs emphasis, which results in no emphasis at all, just wordiness and lack of clarity.

Advanced Expletives

Another variety of expletive adds some words just after there is or it is. As with all expletives, these additions can be useful or they can create wordiness and lack clarity. Here are some examples:

it is a fact that there is the fact that
it is rumored that there is a rumor that
it is the case that there is the case in which
it is questionable whether there is a question whether
it is ironic that there is irony in the fact that

How, here are a few examples conaining these super-expletives:

Weak, unnecessary expletive: According to Heraclitus, it is fact that everything is in a state of change and war and that strife between opposites is the eternal condition of the universe.

Revision: According to Heraclitus, everything is in a state of change and war, and strife between opposites is the eternal condition of the universe.


Heraclitus (7th-6th century BC). Defined the principal elements of nature as fire, earth, water.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: There is little doubt that Heraclitus's conception of reality as a process, an ever-changing flux, stands in stark contrast to the subsequent development of metaphysics emanating from Aristotle.

Revision: Heraclitus's conception of reality as a process, an ever-changing flux, clearly stands in stark contrast to the subsequent development of metaphysics emanating from Aristotle.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: It is significant that Parmenides that highlighted the intricacies and logical complications inherent in notions of existence and the relationship between language, thought and reality.

Revision: Parmenides is significant for highlighting the intricacies and logical complications inherent in notions of existence and the relationship between language, thought and reality.

Fixing Wordy Expletives

Okay, now for some practice spotting and fixing expletives. As you go through these examples, cover up the revisions and see if you can work these problems yourself. At some point, you'll decide that this is quite obvious and way too easy. Quite true. The point of this chapter is more to raise your awareness of this senence-style problem.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: To assist in devising an effective control program to reduce ozone levels, there are two basic questions that need to be answered: what are the sources of the ozone, and what are the most cost-effective controls for these sources?

Revision: To assist in devising an effective control program to reduce ozone levels, two basic questions need to be answered: what are the sources of the ozone, and what are the most cost-effective controls for these sources?

Weak, unnecessary expletive: I recommend that you might take a look at the computer and see whether there needs to be a recall of this particular model.

Revision: I recommend that you take a look at the computer and see whether this particular model should be recalled.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: It is apparently the case that Zeno’s argument shows that space cannot consist of an infinite series of points.

Revision: Zeno’s argument seems to show that space cannot consist of an infinite series of points.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: Socrates lived through times where there was great political upheaval in Athens, a city that would eventually make him a scapegoat for its troubles and ultimately execute him.

Revision: Socrates lived through times of great political upheaval in Athens, a city that would eventually make him a scapegoat for its troubles and ultimately execute him.

If you are confident you get rid of wordy, unnecessary expletives, use this exercise to test yourself:

Fun with Wordy Expletives


Pythagoras (6th-5th century BC). Believed that the ultimate nature of reality is the number.

Let's be perverse, mischievous for awhile and create wordy expletives—for the sheer fiendish joy of it. And just for the nonfiendish fun of it, let's take a tour through some ancient Greek philosophers.

Original sentence: Thales, probably born somewhere around 620 BC, is mainly remembered as the presocratic philosopher who claimed that the fundamental nature of the world is water.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: It is Thales, probably born somewhere around 620 BC, who is mainly remembered as the presocratic philosopher who claimed that it is water that is the fundamental nature of the world.

How about that—two expletives!

Original sentence: However, his significance as a philosopher is not so much what he said, but his method.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: However, it is his method and not so much what it is that he said, that makes him significant as a philosopher.

You could make a case for the initial It is as a way of emphasizing the importance of Thales—but not the rest.

Original sentence: Thales was the first thinker to try to account for the nature of the world without appealing to the wills and whims of anthropomorphic Homerian gods.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: It was Thales who was the first thinker to try to account for the nature of the world without there being any appeal to the wills and whims of anthropomorphic Homerian gods.

We have seen plenty of it is by now. But notice how there is is transformed into there being. Clever! Maybe expletives can mutate.

Original sentence: Rather, he sought to explain the many diverse phenomena he observed by appealing to a common underlying principle, an idea that is still germane to modern scientific method.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: Rather, he sought to explain the many diverse phenomena he observed by stating that there was a common underlying principle, an idea that is still germane to modern scientific method.

This one is a tough one to jam an unncessary expletive into. We have to reword the original sentence so that there was will work.

Original sentence: Pythagoras is known for his theorem, which states that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining two sides.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: It is Pythagoras who is known for his theorem, in which there is the statement that it is the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle that is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining two sides.

Oh, please! Three expletives? How fiendish—how perverse!

Original sentence: Pythagoras also preached reincarnation and the transmigration of souls and is largely responsible for the modern belief in numerology, later popularised by Nostradamus.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: Pythagoras also preached that there is reincarnation and transmigration of souls, and it is he who islargely responsible for the modern belief in numerology, later popularised by Nostradamus.

Notice how many of these sentence-sabotage efforts increase the length of sentence, as well as making them less immediately understandable.

Original sentence: According to Pythagoras, the ultimate nature of reality is number.

Weak, unnecessary expletive: According to Pythagoras, it is the number that is the ultimate nature of reality.

Good old it is (and there is). What would we do without them?

Now, if you are confident you can clog up sentences with unnecessary, wordy expletives, go to this exercise in which you can test yourself:

Exercises

Links to these exercises are provided at the end of the sections where they are relevant. But here they all are in case you read the text straight through:

Additional Resources


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