Saturday, February 11, 2017

Once Upon a Time There Was Expletive Construction

By Jean Kavich Bloom 
"Once upon a time there was an average-looking prince who was imprisoned in a castle (no doubt hoping for an average-looking princess to save him)."   
I'm messing with storybook tradition in more ways than one, but my point is about expletive constructions. Expletive constructions are phrases such as “There is / There was,” “There are / There were,” and “It is / It was.” As the Writing Center of the University of Wisconsin says, “Try to avoid using them, since these constructions merely obscure the main subject and action of a sentence.” I'll add that expletive constructions also tend to invite wordiness. In the example above, not only is "there was" in use, but "who was" then seems to be required.   
Perhaps that prince's dilemma could be better described like this: "Once upon a time a handsome prince was imprisoned in a castle . . ." (I'll leave determining the probability of his hoping for that princess to you.)  
Avoiding expletive constructions is difficult because they're so common in everyday speech. That’s okay; people talk the way they talk, and employing these constructions in dialogue is appropriate because characters must sound like real people. They should sound like us!  
Not only that, but we've all heard that famous first line in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ." Sometimes narrative expletive constructions work quite well!   
Authors can, however, train themselves to avoid expletive constructions when writing narrative, at least most of the time, and for the reason given above: so as not to "obscure the main subject and action of a sentence." Readers will appreciate such an accomplishment even if they don’t know they are!    
Here are some simple sentences with expletive constructions that can be easily "flipped," in most cases with fewer words:  

There are several drama series on Netflix I especially like.

I especially like several drama series on Netflix.

There was so much on Megan's plate she hardly had time to think.
Megan's plate was so full she hardly had time to think. 

It’s the way Martin speaks to Ellen that frustrates Cynthia the most.

What frustrates Cynthia the most is the way Martin speaks to Ellen.

Try this exercise: For the next few days, note how many expletive constructions you see (1) in the book you’re currently reading, (2) on a blog you regularly follow, or (3) in memes on a social media site. Making yourself more aware of expletive constructions is an easy first step toward addressing them in your own writing.

Jean Kavich Bloom is a freelance editor and writer (see
Bloom in Words Editorial Services). Her personal blog is Bloom in Words too, where she sometimes posts articles about the writing life. She is also a contributor to The Glorious Table, a blog for women of all ages. Her published books are Bible Promises for God's Precious Princess and Bible Promises for God's Treasured Boy. She and her husband, Cal, have three children and five grandchildren.

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