Monday, March 28, 2011

The Nitpicky English Major's Guide to Grammar: Creating Complete Sentences

Let me be honest with you: incomplete sentences irritate me.  They break off and leave me wondering what, exactly, you meant to say.  When you're writing, even creatively, you always want your reader to know what you want to say.  If you do not convey your purpose and meaning, then why write anything for others to read?

In order to understand how to write a complete sentence, we (Why, yes, I am employing the so-called "royal we") must examine what makes a sentence.  To begin, we have the subject, highlighted in bold below.

The flowers are blooming.

The subject is the part of the sentence that performs an action of some sort.  Sometimes the subject is simple, like "the flowers."  Other times, it's a little more complicated, like in this example.

The tall, slim, and purple flowers are blooming.

In addition to the subject, we must have the predicate, the part of the sentence that contains the action, highlighted in bold below.  This must be a conjugated verb.  To tell if your verb is conjugated, look for two things.  First, if it ends in "ing," but does not have a helping verb before it (like "are" in the sentence below), then it is not conjugated.  Second, if it is in the infinitive form ("to" something, like "to play," "to run," etc.), then it is not conjugated.  If you have an unconjugated verb, then change its form or add helping verbs.  An example of a predicate is as follows:

The flowers are blooming.

Just like the subject, the predicate can be simple or complicated, like this example.

The flowers are blooming and growing rapidly.

Now, if we really want to break it down, the only essential part of the subject is the word "flowers," and the only essential part of the predicate is the word "are."  See, in a complete sentence, we need a noun and a conjugated verb.  So our sentence could actually be just like this:

Flowers are.

Sometimes, a group of words will have both of these features--a noun and a conjugated verb--but is still not a complete sentence.  You might look at that squiggly green line under your words in Microsoft Word and want to scream at your computer.  But the answer is actually pretty simple, once you know how to look for it: if the noun and verb are part of a dependent clause, then you do not have a complete sentence.

"A what?" you ask? Let me explain, with some help from a textbook I found in the writing center:

"If the conjugated verb and its subject are introduced by a danger word, you do not have a complete sentence; it does not express a complete thought.  It is a cliff-hanger, because it begins a statement but does not finish it.  Example: If you come home...[what?]" (Troyka and Nudelman 107).

What are these danger words?  Well, you can go back to last week's post and look at the list of prepositions in the link I included.  Those are always clues.  If they show up before the subject, then you probably have a dependent clause, which is most easily defined as a group of words that needs to be connected to a sentence (it depends on the sentence, you could say).  There are some other "danger words" that don't always show up before the subject, however, and these can be hard to spot.  They sneak their way in between the subject and the predicate on occasion.  Troyka and Nudelman's list consists of these words: who, whom, which, that, whoever, whomever, what, and whatever (107).  If you spot a group of words like this one, you know that it's not a complete sentence.

The flowers that are blooming.

In order to be a complete sentence, some changes would have to be made.  You could remove "that," or you could add to the sentence, maybe saying, "The flowers that are blooming are pretty."  Either option will give you a complete sentence.  Troyka and Nudelman offer two tips for correcting fragments caused by "danger words."  First, you could "attach the fragment to the previous sentence or to the one that follows, whichever is most closely connected in thought to the fragment."  You could also "complete the fragment with the necessary words" (108). 

So, in summary, you should look for three things when identifying a complete sentence:

1. a subject (a noun)*
2. a predicate (containing a conjugated verb)
3. no "danger words" (which would create a dependent clause)

If all of these check out, then you probably have a complete sentence.  Write on!

*The only exception to this rule is the command, in which the subject is not always stated.  If you have a sentence like "Go home," then it is complete, even though there is no noun before the verb.  The subject is an implied "you."  To check that this is accurate, write in the "you," and if it still makes sense, you most likely have a complete sentence.

I may have bachelor's degree in English and be preparing for a master of arts program, but I can't always explain things in plain language, so today, I pulled out a book that actually explains things pretty well, in spite of being a grammar textbook.  It's older in the realm of scholarship, but it's still accurate.  I wonder if my boss will let me keep it, since she was going to get rid of it?  How nerdy does that make me?  Anyway, here's the source:
Troyka, Lynn Quitman, and Jerrold Nudelman.  "The Sentence Fragment." Steps in Composition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1999. Print.

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