One of the most basic rules of writing involves a requirement that writers should always use complete sentences. But this isn’t always true.
I can practically hear the imaginary, old-fashioned schoolmarm standing with her ruler, ever ready to rap a child’s knuckles for speaking out of turn. If this strict educator happened to be an English teacher, she would no doubt demand that everyone always, always use complete sentences in everything they wrote.
Many assume that complete sentences are a valid requirement. In fact, I found an article at YourDictionary.com titled, “The 11 Rules of Grammar: Understand the Basics.” The very first rule, according to the article, is this: “Write in complete sentences.”
It then explains that a sentence needs two things to be complete: a noun and a verb.
Going back to elementary grammar, the noun is the subject of the sentence: a person, place or thing. A verb is the action.
Sentences can be intricately more complicated that that. Writers can add objects, adjectives and adverbs, clauses and more to make sentence diagramming a nightmare.
But to be complete, you must have those two basic ingredients. You can actually get by with just those two. This two-word sentence is complete:
The subject is John. The verb is the past-tense form of wait.
You can get more complicated than that if you wish. Here’s an example:
John waited all afternoon for the telephone to ring, convinced that at this point, he could only hear bad news at the other end of the line.
It’s still complete.
Of course, grammar is never quite that simple.
One of the most famous incomplete sentences is an answer to an uncooperative child’s question adults have hurled around for generations: “Because I said so.”
But wait: it has a subject and a verb. Shouldn’t this be a complete sentence, too? Unfortunately, that little because spoils the party. The preposition converts what would otherwise be a sentence into a dependent clause. If I were to adjust that clause into an actual sentence, it might go something like this:
Because I said so, my students had to stay ten minutes after class.
Have no fear: I long ago gave up any desire to actually be a teacher! But by adding a complete thought, it turns a dependent clause into a full sentence. In fact, you could drop the clause and have a perfectly valid sentence.
It is the example, “because I said so,” that led generations of students to be misinformed into believing that you can’t start a sentence with the word because. I just demonstrated the fallacy of that argument. But I also demonstrated how easily you can leave yourself with a clause instead of a full sentence.
When you think about it, I also demonstrated one other interesting tidbit.
Humans don’t always speak in complete sentences.
When the aforementioned uncooperative students protest an instruction and ask why, the flustered teacher might well answer, “Because I said so.”
It’s not a complete sentence by strict grammar rules. But it is spoken as a complete thought.
We do this in spoken English constantly. Even speakers standing at a lectern with a carefully-written speech in front of them may still utter a fragment that expresses a complete thought, but is not, however, a complete sentence.
Dialog in particular is one place where writers almost shouldn’t always employ a full sentence for every line. Unless they’re trying to sound mechanical, they wouldn’t write each line of dialog that way. It wouldn’t read as genuine.
Did you notice what I did with the headline to this article? “You Must Write in Complete Sentences, Right? Not Always.” That could very well be a snippet of a conversation between two people. The second sentence, which isn’t a complete sentence, of course, could be a valid answer to the question in spoken conversation.
The complete sentences rule depends on what you’re writing.
If you are preparing a report for your corporate office, that might be a great time to use more formal writing, including making sure your sentences are complete. Incomplete sentences in formal writing, particularly business reports, can make you look unprofessional.
If, on the other hand, you decide you’re writing fiction or even nonfiction that is targeted to a more casual audience, occasional sentence fragments may actually provide a nice adjustment to the pacing of what you’re writing. Incomplete sentences and fragments can add emphasis or even uncertainty. In certain types of writing, like fiction, that could be a good thing. In more formal writing, that could be a detriment, depending on how that audience judges your work.
Choose your sentence length accordingly.