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Incomplete Sentences

Incomplete Sentences

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson discusses incomplete sentences and how to fix them.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be learning about a common problem for writers, incomplete sentences. We'll talk briefly about sentences in general and the clauses that they're made out of, before looking at incomplete sentences, common errors writers make, and how to fix them.

First let's discuss the basics of sentences. That way we'll know what they're supposed to include so we can better understand the problems incomplete sentences pose. A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought and includes a subject and a verb. Many also include an object.

In a sentence, the subject does the action of the verb, and the object is what the action is done to. The subject of a sentence is called that because it's who or what the sentence is about. Sentences are, in general, made up of clauses, which are themselves groups of words that contain a subject and a verb. The basic sentence construction of a subject and verb is known as an "independent clause," because it can stand alone as complete sentence, expresses a complete thought, but it doesn't have to be its own sentence.

Many sentences also contain dependent clauses, which are groups of words that do not stand alone as a sentence because they don't express a complete thought. They provide other information in the sentence. Take this very simple sentence. For example. "The boy kicked the ball." Here we have a subject. "the boy," and a verb, "kicked." We've also got an object, "the ball," though the sentence doesn't need it to be complete. "The boy kicked" is still a viable sentence and an independent clause, though it doesn't tell us that much.

We can complicate the sentence by adding a dependent clause to it. Take this one for example. "Because he was angry at his sister, the boy kicked the ball." As you can see, the dependent clause, "because he was angry at his sister," doesn't contain its own complete idea, and as such it can't be its own sentence, but it does provide the independent clause with some very useful information. After all, knowing that the boy is angry at his sister changes the way readers would understand him kicking the ball, wouldn't it?

Now we know what a complete sentence requires. We're already in a better place to understanding complete sentences. For compositionists, incomplete sentences are groups of words in an essay that are being used as sentences but don't actually fulfill the requirements of a complete sentence. They are pieces of sentences, sometimes called "sentence fragments," that a writer has mistakenly presented in the text as if they're complete.

This phenomenon is most common when writers are struggling to express complicated ideas, so don't be frustrated if you find yourself using them in dress. After all, this is part of the reason we edit and proofread. Incomplete sentences are also common in casual speech and are generally considered acceptable in that context, because we don't follow grammatical rules nearly so closely in informal speech. But when translating them into writing, problems arise.

If, for example, you ask me how I got home and I simply answered, "Caught the bus," you probably wouldn't scold me for not including a subject in my sentence. And if you ask me how I like the sequel to Game of Thrones, I might respond, "A story with deep thoughts and emotions," and chances are you wouldn't notice that this fragment doesn't have a verb. And if I wanted to say, after a long pause, "which is why the fantasy genre will never be the same," you wouldn't bat an eye. But as you can see, putting these fragments down in writing raises all kinds of red flags-- or at least it should.

And the thing is there are many ways for a sentence to be incomplete. It could be missing its subject, like the first example we looked at. Or the sentence could lack a verb, like the second, "a story with a deep thoughts and emotions." A sentence could start with a conjunction, but not complete the thought like this, "But I was on my way home." Or could start with a preposition and cannot complete the thought, as in, "during the second half."

Similarly, a sentence could start with the transition expression but not complete a thought, as in, "On the other hand, it rained." There are, of course, many other types of examples of incomplete sentences, more than I could ever hope to cover here. But don't worry. If you're ever in doubt about whether a sentence you just read or wrote is complete, try this test. Simply put, "it is true that" in front of the sentence and see if what you just said makes sense.

For example, "It is true that the boy kicked the ball" makes perfect sense. The same can't be said of any of these examples. "It is true that during the second half." "It is true that caught the bus." "It is true but I was on my way home." None of these make any sense, which should indicate that there's an incomplete idea and an incomplete sentence."

Now let's take a little more time to look at some incomplete sentences and then make them complete. If I was to write, for example, "After the rain stops," you could easily recognize it as a sentence fragment. But how do we complete it? Well, since we don't have enough information-- it's not a complete thought after all-- we'll have to give it some more. How about this? "We should wait until the rain stops."

How about these sentences? "Doing squats at the gym. I heard it's good for your core." The first of the two is a fragment, but this is easily remedied. Just combine it with the second to say something like this. "I heard doing squats at the gym is good for your core."

How about this one? "The smartest guy in the room." Just like the first example, we don't have enough information here, since we don't have the verbal sentence. So let's give it one. "He thinks he's the smartest guy in the room." And how about this one? "When you take the time to read it." Clearly the sentence is missing something. It fails our test, right? "It is true that when you take the time to read it" makes no sense. So let's finish the thought, shall we? "When you take the time to read it, you'll see what I mean." Now try the test again. It should work just fine.

And for our last example, consider these two sentences. "I got into an accident yesterday. Didn't get hurt." Here's it's the second one that's incomplete, but luckily we can fix the problem with a conjunction. "I got into an accident yesterday, but I didn't get hurt." So as you can see, just as there are many kinds of incomplete sentences there are many kinds of solutions to them, many ways to ensure every sentence you raise grammatical and complete.

What did we learn today? We learned about sentences and clauses and what sentences need to be considered complete. Then we looked at common violations of this rule and fixed some examples. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know
Dependent Clause

A group of words with a subject and a verb that cannot stand alone as a sentence because it does not express a complete thought.

Incomplete Sentence

A group of words in an essay that is being used as a sentence but does not fulfill the requirements of a sentence.

Independent Clause

A group of words that can stand alone as a sentence, although it does not have to do so.


A group of words that expresses a complete thought and includes a subject and a verb.