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Passing a Proper Sentence

Never write a sentence without a subject and a verb

There are many rules of grammar we are taught in childhood that stick with us when we become adults. We may not remember the why, but we remember the what.

But not all rules are really rules. Some are misremembered. Some mistaught. Others misapplied.

They stay in our minds and colour how we use language through life. How we use language incorrectly.

These are:

The Seven Sins of Syntax

The Sin

This rule applies to a single sentence. A sentence that stands alone and is without context, preamble, or follow-up.

We can all agree that the purpose of a sentence is to convey information. And information will always be about something (the ‘subject’) doing or being (the ‘verb’).

Within these parameters, it is a sin to write a sentence without a subject and verb.

Some people think a sentence also needs an object (the thing being done to). It doesn’t. A sentence can be just two words. Jesus wept. I cry. He stinks. All perfectly grammatical sentences.

Not So Sinful

This rule will always apply to standalone sentences that are statements.

But not all sentences are statements. Sentences can also be questions and imperatives.

It is perfectly acceptable to see questions and imperatives that don’t include a subject. In these situations, we understand that the subject exists unwritten. These are called ‘null subjects.’

For example, the questions:

How much?

What time?

Any more?

include the hidden verbs and null subjects that mean we read:

How much (are (vb)) (the apples (sb))?

What time (is (vb)) (it (sb))?

(Do (you (sb))) (have (vb)) Any more (questions (ob))?

With imperatives, the null subject is almost always ‘you’:

(You) Stop that!

(You) Go away!

(You) Shut up!

Answers can also break the rule. Yes and No are the most obvious examples. But answers cannot exist without a question so will never be standalone sentences. And the sin here is only against sentences with no context.

Committing More Sins

The reality is that a sentence rarely exists without context. Statements come from somewhere, lead somewhere else and are part of a wider conversation (or paragraph).

As such, it’s rare for this rule to be required.

In the same way we accept a null subject, we also understand an external reference. When a statement refers to something previously mentioned, it is called an anaphoric reference. When the thing referenced comes after the sentence, it is known as cataphoric. And when the subject isn’t made explicit anywhere but is shared knowledge between reader and writer or speaker and listener, it is exophoric.

This makes sentence fragments – those without a subject – common in almost all writing. They are used less in very formal and legal documents as they could lead to misinterpretation. You also should try not to overuse them, or your writing will become choppy. Reading too many sentence fragments is like trying to drive a car that continually jump starts.

But sentence fragments can add emphasis to a point. Really quickly.

They can surprise the reader. Like this.

By altering the pace, they can give your writing a certain tone.

Especially in sign-offs. Some sign-offs anyway.


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