Given the example:

Was it then that I thought of Alan? No, earlier. From the very first wave of panic my mind reached out to him. Yes, even then, in the heart of the fear, there was a still small voice saying, This will change your life. Sometimes that’s what it takes to bring people together, a crisis, a tragedy. You could say that’s what brought David and I together. I would not have been in that place were it not for my crisis.

There are two nominal relative clauses starting with what. The first one has it after what. Do they call this it expletive?

  • Apparently, you are using expletive to mean something other than what it really means. What really did you mean by expletive, can you clarify? – Kris Dec 27 '12 at 6:20
  • @Kris: I meant to say ‘it’ has no special meaning in the example. Having read the reply below, I thought this kind of use is divided into expletive and dummy-it. And I don’t need to go into great detail, I didn’t try to further answer. – Listenever Dec 27 '12 at 6:29
  • 'expletive' usually means a curse or taboo word. That's why people are misunderstanding the title. You should edit to change. – Mitch Dec 27 '12 at 12:12
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    @Mitch - "expletive" in this sense is accepted linguistic terminology (ling.upenn.edu/~beatrice/syntax-textbook/box-expletives.html) - no need to change it. – alcas Dec 27 '12 at 17:01

No, they call that use a dummy it. We have a bunch of questions about it. Wikipedia calls it a dummy pronoun:

A dummy pronoun, also called an expletive pronoun or pleonastic pronoun, is a type of pronoun used in non-pro-drop languages, such as English. It is used when a particular verb argument (or preposition) is nonexistent (it could also be unknown, irrelevant, already understood, or otherwise “not to be spoken of directly”), but when a reference to the argument (a pronoun) is nevertheless syntactically required.

However, I don’t see why it would be an expletive, or offensive speech per your original tagging. John Lawler in a comment below points out that “expletive” is a bit of old-fashioned vocabulary here, and furthermore that there exist several different flavors of “dummy it”.

By the way, saying “what brought David and I together” is non-standard. In Standard English, object pronouns are rendered in the oblique not the subject case, so it must be “what brought David and me together”.

  • That's what I like to call "the hypercorrective I".... – Hellion Dec 27 '12 at 3:23
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    Dummy it has often been called "expletive it" and "existential it", among other names. Goes to show how useful technical labels are. There are several other types of "Dummy it", by the way. – John Lawler Dec 27 '12 at 3:55
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    This particular usage of "expletive" is just oldfashioned terminology; nothing offensive about it. It's just a term that was lying around and got used. – John Lawler Dec 27 '12 at 4:03
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    @Kris, yes, we can - and as a matter of fact, when you see the term "expletive" in linguistics, my default reading is expletive in the sense of dummy, not invective/swear words. – Alex B. Dec 27 '12 at 14:20
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    If y'all are suggesting (it's a little hard for me to figure out from comments) that the terms "expletive it" and "existential it" are synonymous, and that they both mean the same thing as the term "dummy it", then I'm afraid there's some confusion. Like tense or passive or any number of other terms applied to grammar by people who learned them in grammar school but haven't studied grammar since, these terms are labels that can be stuck on some usage of it to identify it as idiopathic in some sense. In English grammar, "Dummy it" is the general term, and there are varieties. – John Lawler Dec 27 '12 at 17:20

For the "it" example, yes, in a rarely-used sense of the word. I was surprised to find this definition for "expletive" in my Merriam-Webster: "a syllable, word, or phrase inserted to fill a vacancy (as in a sentence or metrical line) without adding to the sense, esp: a word (as it in 'make it clear which you prefer') that occupies the position of the subject or object of a verb in normal English word order and anticipates a subsequent word or phrase that supplies the needed meaningful content."

This use of "expletive" is rare; normally it refers to an exclamatory word.

I don't think the "what" example counts as an expletive, though. In that case, "what" is a relative pronoun introducing a subordinate clause. (And it should be "me," not "I," as the direct object of "brought.")

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