November 10, 2009

Have you ever noticed just how many things are left out when you speak?  We drop subjects all the time, starting sentences just with verbs or adjectives: “Great to see you the other day.”  “Love that hat you’re wearing.”

525px-Speech_balloon.svgIn written English we demand “complete sentences” (I can hear my sixth-grade teacher’s voice right now) because in the written word there is often less context available than is needed for comprehension.  As a teacher, if I’m grading quizzes, it is a huge help if the student writes in a complete sentence for every answer, because I get a clear sense of what he thinks he is answering.  I much prefer to see “3. Pepin the Short was crowned king of the Franks in AD 752” than simply find on the paper “3. Pepin the Short.”

Yet this requirement for complete sentences in written English is not absolute.  Look, here’s a sentence discussing George Clooney, from this week’s New Yorker, a magazine legendary for its grammatical fussiness:

The most handsome and capable star in the world, and he doesn’t mind coming across as a total dork. [emphasis original]

It is an incomplete sentence, joined to a complete sentence.  In this sort of conversational and familiar writing, we tolerate incomplete sentences because we have the context, we have the flow of thought. When writing imitates the easy flow of speech, many of the grade-school rules of grammar drop away. Read the rest of this entry »