When does a sentence end? Sentence syntax

The last two posts, on run-ons/comma splices and sentence fragments, discussed how the failure to identify a sentence is considered a serious error in Standard English, the English taught in schools and used in the public spheres (Weaver Teaching Grammar in Context). Run-ons and comma splices produce word groups that are more than a sentence in Traditional Grammar, while fragments are word groups that are less than a sentence.

The length of the word group has nothing to do with its being a sentence.

Some sentences are very short, just two words or sometimes even one word (as in commands where the subject you is understood).

Two word sentence:  Dogs bark.

Commands:   Go.   (You) Go.          Stop.   (You) Stop      Bark.   (You) Bark.

The simple, two word sentence, Dogs bark, can be expanded with modifiers, but its basic pattern remains the same:

All the dogs in my neighborhood near the college bark during the day at bikers and joggers.

Some sentences can be long, stretching line upon line as in this example from A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

This is a periodic sentence–very long and involved, with suspended construction—the sense or meaning is not completed until the end.  (With its main clause or verb at the end, a periodic sentence is a rhetorical device, a matter of style, which can be used for emphasis, can created suspense or interest, or can be persuasive by putting the reasons for something at the beginning before a final point is made.)

As Blumenthal writes, in professional writing, a sentence ends only when the last grammatically connected idea has been expressed.

We built a college | on a hill | overlooking a lake | which was surrounded by trees.

We could have ended the sentence at each point marked by the vertical line.

It does not end until the final period because each phrase or clause modifies a word in the preceding phrase or clause (English 3200). If any of the modifiers are broken off or separated from the main sentence, it becomes a fragment.

Consider these word groups:

Neighbors objected. The neighbors.

The first is complete sentence, similar to Dogs bark. The second is a noun phrase, which can be used for a subject, but cannot stand on its own or complete a thought.

Even adding additional words to the noun phrase does not guarantee that you have a sentence:

The neighbors, who were annoyed by the barking of the dog at all hours of the day and night,

Despite its nineteen words, this word group is still not a sentence but only a subject modified by a clause.

We must add a verb or predicate to complete the sentence:

The neighbors, who were annoyed by the barking of the dog at all hours of the day and night, complained.

Without the verb, the word group would be considered a fragment in professional writing.

As with periodic sentences, fragments can be a matter of style, used in fiction and nonfiction narrative writing “deliberately to create a variety of powerful effects” (Nordquist).

Consider these passage from the novels of John le Carré:

Our candidate begins speaking, A deliberate, unimpressive opening.  (A Perfect Spy)

He began packing up his desk. Precisely. Packing to leave. Opening and shutting drawers. Putting his file trays into his steel cupboard and locking it. Absently smoothing back his hair between moves, a tic that Woodrow had always found particularly irritating in him. (The Constant Gardener)

As Kolln points out, the deliberate (and effective) use of fragments, such as noun phrases or verb phrases, can add details without a full sentence and “invariably call attention to themselves” (Kolln 226).

Comma splices and run-ons can also be used to powerful effect in literary and journalistic writing, again as matters of style. Lunsford (148) provides the following example from Anne Cameron of the use of comma splices to “create momentum with a rush of details”:

Golden eagles sit in every tree and watch us watch them watch us, although there are bird experts who will tell you in all seriousness that there are NO golden eagles here. Bald eagles are common, ospreys abound, we have herons and mergansers and kingfishers, we have logging with percherons and belgians, we have park land and nature trails, we have enough oddballs, weirdos, and loons to satisfy anybody.

So, when a sentence ends will depend on your outlook and purpose, as touched upon in the previous blog post. If you are writing for situations requiring Standard English, for formal occasions in the public spheres, such writing for school, business, government, or the professions, then recognizing a sentence unit as defined by Traditional Grammar will dictate where a sentence end: when the last grammatically connected idea has been expressed.

However, if you are writing narrative, writing for creative expression, whether fiction or nonfiction, then defining a sentence becomes a matter of style. Depending upon the desired effect, you may choose the delayed main clause or verb of the periodic sentence in order to pile on details first. Or you may use the fragment or comma splice/run-on sentence to pile up details, in short burst of noun or verb phrases that call attention to themselves or in sweeping run-ons that build a momentum of nouns and modifiers.

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