Spot the Complete Sentence

Can you tell which of the following, if any, are complete sentences?






Some of my column readers couldn’t, even after I explained which and why.  Obviously, that one’s on the explainer.  I’ll try harder here after you’ve had a chance to mull over the question.

Here’s your first hint: Yes, one of these is a complete sentence. But only one. The rest aren’t errors, mind you. There’s nothing wrong with punctuating an incomplete sentence as if it were complete. When you do so, it’s called a sentence fragment. And writers -- even many of the very best writers -- use sentence fragments all the time.

I think that’s what tripped up the couple of readers who wrote to object to my saying that “onward” and “outside” are not complete sentences. If you yell either of these words at someone, your point is 100% clear and complete. So why was I being such a pain and refusing to acknowledge they’re complete sentences?

Well, as I wrote in a subsquent column, just because a thought is clear and complete doesn’t make it a complete sentence.

A complete sentence must contain at least one clause. A clause is a subject and a verb, and neither can be left implied, with one exception: Imperatives, that is, commands, always leave their subjects implied. It’s not a problem because the subject is always the same: “you.” So when you tell someone “Eat!” the subject is already built in to the verb, if you will.

But in four of our five sentences above, not only is there no subject, there’s no verb either. Outside! Now! Onward! and Beautiful! aren't verbs. Yes, they make clear the verbs that they’re implying. (Go) outside! (Do it) now! (Move) onward! (That is) beautiful! But remember that the verbs must be explicit in order to make for a complete sentence.

So  on our list only Stop! is a complete sentence because it’s the only one that meets the criteria of having a verb (which must be explicit) and a subject (which, in commands only, can be left implied.)



Tags: , ,

5 Responses to “Spot the Complete Sentence”

  1. I'm not convinced. Isn't "Yes" in response to a question a complete sentence? You could say it "implies" the substance of the question but I always find implication a weak support for grammar. Take "He's taller than me". We're told that it should be "than I" because "am" is implied. But it is never, ever, said. So shouldn't a correct descriptive grammar take account of that? And the same goes for "Yes".
    Anyway, if a verb is implied, doesn't that itself create a clause, and therefore a sentence? So that would make "Outside!" (etc) a sentence.

  2. No, an implied verb isn't enough. A complete sentence needs an express verb. It's not a descriptivist/prescriptivist thing because it's not about right or wrong. It's not wrong to use sentence fragments. But they're still fragments. "Yes, Joe left" is a complete sentence. But according to the basics of syntax, "Yes" is not, though it is, of course, fine.

    "My car is outside" is a complete sentence. When someone asks "Where's your car" and you say "Outside," your meaning is clear. That one-word answer may leave much implied: "My 2008 Honda four-door is parked outside the Starbucks where we're enjoying these scones." But none of that is relevant to the grammar. When you chop out the verb, it doesn't matter that the listener knows what you meant. Grammar is about mechanics, not understanding. And the rule is: no verb, not a complete sentence.

    Does that help?

  3. I love your work, and I don’t blame you at all for not wanting to get into a descriptivist vs. prescriptionist slugfest. I’m not sure you can avoid that battle, though, at least on the issue you address in this blog entry. Let me try to recapitulate your own argument, just to make sure I’ve got it right.

    Consider the following one-word utterances:

    (1) John (to a child who is pulling a dog’s tail): “Stop!”

    (2) Mary (standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise): “Beautiful!”

    If I understand you, the first of these (“Stop!”) is a complete sentence. To reach this conclusion, you posit that every complete sentence must contain at least one clause, and every clause must have both a subject and a verb (two premises that I whole-heartedly share). You then turn to the question that is relevant here: whether the clause and its component parts must all be stated explicitly, or whether some can be left implicit, to be inferred from the context. On this question (if I understand you), your answer is that the component parts of a clause can indeed be left implicit -- but only in the special case of the subjects of a second-person imperative statement, where the subject of the clause (you) is almost always left implicit. In all other cases, I take it, you see the requirements of a complete sentence as demanding that both the subject and the verb of that sentence’s clause be stated explicitly, rather than merely being left for implication.

    If I’m right in this, then I think I also understand why you do not believe that a complete sentence is formed by the second remark above (“Beautiful!”). In this case, let us assume that the context strongly suggests that Mary really means something like “[That sunrise] [is] beautiful.” The problem, though, is that Mary’s only explicit statement leaves implicit not only the subject of the clause (the sunrise), but it even leaves out the verb (is) as well. Moreover, Mary’s statement is not a second-person imperative, so it won’t qualify for the special “exception” discussed above, which allows us to sometimes count subjects that are merely implicit (but only in the special case of second-person imperative statements). And when some of your readers object that “Everybody knows what Mary meant,” your response is that even sentence fragments can often be understood, so someone’s ability to understand what is meant is not the test of whether a remark is a complete sentence.

    Well, all right. I was trained as a lawyer, so I’ve no objection in principle to having some rules that apply only in one particular case, or to only one kind of statement. However, I think this is where the descriptivists and prescriptivists might have something to say.

    In particular, if most speakers understand, correctly and with equal ease, just what subjects and verbs are implied by expressions like “Stop!” or “Beautiful,” by what criterion can we decide that there is an exception that applies to one of these statements, but not to the other? To be sure, if the rules of grammar exist independently from peoples’ actual usage, as some prescriptivists would have it, then yes, we can continue to describe “Beautiful!” as an incomplete sentence, even though people persist in using it as if it were complete. But if the rules of grammar are instead to be derived from how people actually use their language, as some descriptivists would have it, what can we look to in any actual usage to distinguish those sentences that are complete (“Stop!”) from those utterances that are actually only sentence fragments (“Beautiful!), but which are nevertheless used in an indistinguishable way?

    Mind you, I don’t know the answer to these questions, and that’s why I usually try to avoid the whole prescriptivist/descriptiveness controversy. In any case, [you] please keep up the good work!

  4. Richard: I'm so sorry it took so long to see and respond to your very fascinating comments! (Not long ago we changed this website so that I no longer have to approve most comments. So I haven't been staying on top of them as well.)

    You raise some excellent questions and have given me a lot to think about. However, my most basic answer is this: Imperatives are unique. When I said that they leave the subject implied, I may have put it a bit imprecisely. What if we were to say, instead, "Imperatives CONTAIN a subject"?

    When we say "beautiful" instead of "The sunrise is beautiful," leaving the other stuff implied is a choice. But in "Stop!" the lack of an express subject is the standard form, not the speaker's exercising an option to stray from a more basic form.

    I think that the question of sentence fragments isn't necessarily subject to the prescriptivist-descriptivist categorization - no more than passive and active voice are. It's not prescriptivist to say that "The coffee was made by Joe" is passive. It just is.

    That's my off-the-cuff take on it, anyway. As I said, these insights and questions put the whole subject in a new and very interesting light! So thanks for taking the time to write. You actually got me thinking!

  5. Here's how you know whether you're right or wrong: Does it hurt to use any of those words in the appropriate context?

    If the answer is no, then the distinction is arbitrary.

    Saying imperatives are unique is just an opinion.

    Grammar changes with us. That's the way it's always been.