English Language Blog

The Incomplete Sentence Posted by on Feb 18, 2021 in English Grammar, English Language

Image by ❤️ Remains Healthy ❤️ from Pixabay, CCO

An incomplete sentence, or sentence fragment, is an incomplete thought. There is some vital piece of information missing. Usually, what’s missing is either a verb or a noun. This is elementary English and should be easy to identify. We know an incomplete sentence when we see one. Or, do we? When does a sentence fragment look like a complete sentence?

Let’s consider these two fragments:

  • Brother on the beach.
  • Cute kitten.

What about the brother on the beach? Whose brother is it and what is he doing on the beach? We need to know more. Her brother is on the beach. Her is a pronoun, brother is the subject, is on serves as a verbal phrase. It’s obvious that this is a sentence fragment, right?

If this sentence were in the form of spoken dialogue, you could assume that some pronoun (my, your, his, her, our, their) was implied, but you would still need to add that verbal phrase, is on, in order to create a complete sentence. “Brother’s on the beach.”

However, as for the cute kitten, let’s return to the idea of spoken dialogue. In English, we often speak in incomplete sentences because an unspoken word or two can be implied. If you were holding a kitten and I walked up, you would understand me if I said, “Cute kitten.” It is the equivalent of saying, “That’s a cute kitten.” That’s is a conjunction of the pronoun that and the verb is. However, in written English, Cute kitten is a fragment of a sentence.

Consider this exchange:

“Why are you so sad?” “Because my friend is moving away.”

“Because my friend is moving away” is a dependent clause. It contains a noun and a verb, but it is still an incomplete sentence. They are typically found in spoken English, particularly because spoken English is so informal. You can identify dependent clauses by the dependent marker word, almost always found at the beginning of the dependent clause.

Last week, we talked about words of transition. Dependent markers are common transitions. Because, whenever, although, after, before, until, whatever, unless…

  • “What time do you usually go to bed?” “After 10 PM.”
  • “I want to watch a movie tonight.” “Whatever makes you happy.”

When writing English, though, you need to use independent clauses. An independent clause contains a subject, a verb, and a complete thought.

  • “I usually go to bed after 10 PM.”
  • “I will watch whatever makes you happy.”

Remember to avoid using dependent clauses when writing English unless you are writing dialogue, as in a short story, for example.

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.