Janice Hall Heck

Finding hope in a chaotic world…

#AtoZ, 2014: V is for Verb-less Sentences

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FR, Frag. Fragment, INC, Incomplete.logo 2.2

Remember sitting in English class in high school and the teacher returning your essay all marked up in red, with FR, INC, AWK, WW written in the margins? As a teacher, I wrote these symbols on student papers myself, and later when I worked for an editor of a small journal, he used these symbols on draft manuscripts submitted for publication.

(Okay, I laugh when I see AWK,  the symbol for an awkward sentence, because it conjures up this image in my demented imagination: a brightly colored parrot swinging on its perch in my office and yelling, “AWK, AWK, AWK.”)

Teachers follow the rules. Whether short or long, sentences must have two parts: a subject and a predicate. Writing gurus still argue about the definition of “sentence” (see Garner’s Modern American Usage, “Incomplete Sentences,”  for a discussion on this topic), but the most-commonly accepted definition of a sentence is similar to Webster’s: A sentence is…

a.  a word or group of words stating, asking, commanding, or exclaiming something;
b.  conventional unit of connected speech or writing, usually containing a subject and predicate;
c.  in writing, a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with an end mark: period, question mark exclamation mark, etc.


Of course, not everyone agrees on the need to use complete sentences all the time. Bill Walsh, well-known commentator on writing and author of Lapsing into a Comma (2000) makes this comment about sentence fragments:

Only the most tin-eared, fuddy-duddy excuses for copy editors routinely convert every single fragment they see into a complete sentence.

Generally, teachers hold to the subject/predicate definition of sentences and hold students to it for good reason: student writing maturity hasn’t develop enough to know when and how to use fragments effectively.

But anyone who does a lot of reading soon discovers that writers use sentence fragments in their writing. Of course, they use fragments, not by accident as immature writers might, but deliberately to create impact.

Israeli writer Shammai Golan uses short, choppy sentences and fragments to convey the fear, shock, and disbelief of this mortally wounded young soldier

The Uzi’s a good weapon. Effective. For defense. For attack. In face-to-face-fighting. But today’s Friday. And SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESthere’s peace at the borders. And I’m only on watch over their road. They fired. Suddenly. Why’d they fire, suddenly? In war one fires. People get wounded. Killed. In the War of Independence. . . .

I’m breathing. With difficulty though. That’s because of the blood. I’m all wet. Maybe it suddenly rained. Sometimes it rains in September. Even before Yom Kippur. And I’m already damp. And flowing. All is flowing. And all is vanity. And you can never enter the same river twice. The Philosopher teacher. A great sage. . . .

And the leaves fall over my body.  Soft. Purple. Like the water under my belly. Soft. Warm. How long can one flow like this. An hour. Two. Three. . . .

—Shammai Golan, “Ten Centimeters of Dust” in Children of Israel, Children of Palestine: Our Own True Stories (Holliday, 1998

Golan stream of consciousness writing style effectively portrays the desperateness of this soldier’s situation. It is an example of how the mind might be thinking in this particular situation. Definitely not in complete sentences.

So, yes, there are rules for writing complete sentences, but good writers ignore these rules at times in order to develop their own style.

Verb-less and noun-less sentences (incomplete sentences) have other reasons for being, but most often they add bits and pieces of information to a previous sentence. Almost as an afterthought.


Miss Alister, of The Essence of a Thing, writes effective incomplete sentences reflecting an active mind thinking in true, not-always-linear fashion: The deciphering of V. The V Paragraph: Vernacular, 4/24/14.

Here’s more on kernel sentences from yours truly:

Janice Heck: K is for Kernel Sentences. Nouns and verbs control the world. 04/12/2013 (2013 AtoZ)


Your Turn: How do you use sentence fragments in your writing? Got an example?

Janice Hall Heck, retired educator, blogger, and nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ, is quite possibly a grammar geek.

logo 2.2Oh Heck! Another Writing Quirk,  theme for the amazing 2014 A to Z Challenge, suggests ways to improve our writing by avoiding and/or eliminating troublesome bug-a-boos that cramp our writing style.

Look for a list of posts for the #AtoZ, 2014 Challenge (Writing Quirks) here:  #AtoZ: Q is for Quirky Index and a Q Post Round-Up

tWITTER CATMeow for now.  =<^ !^>=






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3 thoughts on “#AtoZ, 2014: V is for Verb-less Sentences

  1. Miss Alister on said:

    Oh yes, I like AWK, have always thought “bird” when I saw it, but less parrot and more turkey buzzard! Can you see it loping with its featherless, raw-looking head?!
    Generally, I like to follow the rules—my high school English teachers loved me—but I’ve become a mixture of forgetful, experimental, and lazy (this is why I bookmark a lot of your posts with diagrams)!
    I loved the sample of Golan’s style here. Wasn’t sure what to think about my V paragraph as a further example, but I’ve decided to be flattered : D

  2. A fragment from my short story, ‘Debt of Honour’.
    “Remain with Hunter,” Jack called out, “and you will die.”
    It’s actually an example of a sentence broken in two parts by a dialogue tag, but it’s the closest thing I could locate without a search.

    • I like speech broken up by dialogue tags. We speak in fragments, so fragments in novels and short stories would be natural. Fragments in academic work would be another matter. Thanks for your comments. I always appreciate your visits and comments.

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