Syntactic expletive

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A syntactic expletive is a word that performs a syntactic role but contributes nothing to meaning.[1] Expletive subjects in the form of dummy pronouns are part of the grammar of many non-pro-drop languages such as English, whose clauses normally require overt provision of subject even when the subject can be pragmatically inferred. (For an alternative theory considering expletives like there as a dummy predicate rather than a dummy subject based on the analysis of the copula see Moro 1997[2]). Consider this example:

"It is important that you work hard for the exam."

Following the eighteenth-century conception of pronoun, Bishop Robert Lowth objected that since it is a pronoun, it should have an antecedent. Since it cannot function without an antecedent in Latin, Lowth said that the usage was incorrect in English. By this approach, the correct phrasing (with the omission of the syntactic expletive "it") would be:

"That you work hard for the exam is important."

Contrast it is necessary that you ... with its Latin equivalent oportet tibi, meaning more or less 'necessitates for you'. Since subject pronouns are not used in Latin except for emphasis, neither are expletive pronouns and the problem does not arise.

Whether or not it is a pronoun here (and linguists today would say that it is one), English is not Latin; and the sentence was and is fully acceptable to native speakers of English and thus was and is grammatical. It has no meaning here; it merely serves as a dummy subject. (It is sometimes called preparatory it or prep it, or a dummy pronoun.)

Bishop Lowth did not condemn sentences that use there as an expletive, even though it is one in many sentences, for example:

"There are ten desks here."

The nomenclature used for the constituents of sentences such as this is still a matter of some dispute, but there might be called subject, are copula, and ten desks predicate nominal. Meanwhile the word here in the example above shows the semantic emptiness of there.

There is some disagreement over whether the it in such sentences as

"It is raining now."

is an expletive. Whereas it makes no sense to ask what the it means in "It is important that you work hard for the exam", some people might say that the dummy it in "It is raining now" means the weather (even if the word weather has not previously been mentioned, and even though "The weather is raining now" is unidiomatic). Thus the it in such sentences is sometimes called expletive, sometimes a weather "it".

See also



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  2. Moro, A. 1997 The Raising of Predicates. Predicative Noun Phrases and the Theory of Clause Structure, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 80, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Further reading

  • Everaert, M.; van Riemsdijk, H; Goedemans, R. (eds) 2006 The Blackwell Companion to Syntax, 5 volumes, Blackwell, London: see "existential sentences and expletive there" in Volume 2.