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.)