I was back at the house of Marcus Brattle, my adolescent ex-Brit mentee, tutoring him in the finer (and sometimes coarser) points of grammar.
“One thing I’ve always wondered,” he said. “In a sentence like It’s raining, what’s the it? The sky, the weather, what?”
“None of the above,” I said. “It’s just there because in English we need an explicit subject. It’s just a filler. An expletive.”
“Expletive.” I wrote it down so he could see the spelling.
“Oh,” he said, “ex-plee-tive. As in deleted.”
“In North America,” I said, “it is pronounced ex-pla-tive. In spite of the fact that the ex is a prefix. It’s from ex ‘out’ and plere ‘fill’.”
“Right enough,” Marcus said. “I’ve said a few expletives when I’ve had to fill some things out. But, to return to the first question, I didn’t say ‘It’s bloody raining,’ I just said ‘It’s raining.’”
“Yes, the it is an expletive.”
“You’re missing a ‘sh.’”
Pause. I sighed. “Not ‘Shit’s raining.’”
“For which let us be thankful,” Marcus said. “That would be excretive.” Some days I wondered whether I had succeeded in teaching him anything other than my own worst habits. “And perhaps explosive,” he added.
I waved that one away with both hands. “Well, let me be explicative. Expletive refers to all sorts of verbal padding and empty filler.”
“Things that may be well deleted.”
“If they’re emphatic vulgarities, they may be trimmed without grammatical damage. Note that not all vulgarities are really expletives; some are main verbs and nouns.”
“No shit. You’re shitting me.”
“Two good examples.”
“Thank you. I will accept the bonus points.” Marcus smiled.
“Anyway,” I continued, “syntactic expletives such as the subjects of It’s raining and There’s a duck on the table are there precisely because they can’t be deleted. In a complete English sentence, you need a subject to receive the nominative case from the verb.” I stopped, realizing that case theory was probably a bit beyond the curriculum. “They’re spear-carriers,” I said.
“Well, you can’t shake a spear at that, but it sounds a bit exploitative.”
I nodded. “Theirs is an empty existence. Look, I’m sure you will like the take on it on The Nasty Guide to Nice Writing. It’s by that dirty old man, Dirk E. Oldman.” I wrote down the URL, nastyguide.wordpress.com.
“I like the sound of it, though… expletive.” He said with with drawn-out relish. “It sounds excellent and complicated. Crisp and clicky and mechanical, rather like the sound of some of the naughty words it refers to, with their ‘sh’ and ‘f’ and ‘t’ and ‘k’ and so on. Actually,” he said, getting up, “I think I know what it sounds like.” He trotted into the kitchen. “How’s this?” I heard a sound that was evidently a cultery or utensil drawer being rattled.
“Sort of like that,” I said.
“No, no, wait for it…” he shouted. There was a sound as of pots and pans being banged around. “I think it sounds like an egg being cracked into a frying pan.”
Oh brother. Adolescent boy. Another excuse for a snack. I got up and headed into the kitchen. Where I promptly collided with Marcus, on his way between fridge and stove. “Bollocks!” he said, stepping back.
“Now that,” I said, “was an exclamative expletive.”
“Actually,” he said, indicating the yellow-and-clear goo and shell bits now running down the front of my shirt, “that was an egg-splat-ive.”