Why? Because it’s a complete sentence.

A colleague was wondering whether, in something such as the title of this post, the b in because should be lower-cased, since Because it’s a complete sentence isn’t a complete sentence.

Of course, lower-casing the b wouldn’t result in the formation of a more complete sentence, and it would make a difference in how it could be read – a lower-cased follow-on after a question tends to imply that what follows is an explanation or addendum to the question, whereas a capital tends to indicate a response. But the important point I want to make today is that Because it’s a complete sentence actually is a complete sentence.

A complete sentence has a subject (sometimes implied) and a predicate. In this sentence, it is the subject and is a complete sentence is the predicate. Nor is there in reality a rule that a sentence can’t begin with a conjunction; that’s actually just a superstition invented a couple of centuries ago by people who didn’t understand what they were talking about (notably one Robert Lowth, who vandalized English teaching quite badly in 1762 with a book of inane invented superstitions that caught on). It was no problem for Shakespeare or the translators of the King James Bible, among other true standard-setters.

But the sense of the sentence is incomplete, one may protest! It requires something to have come before! Um, so? We have no issue with beginning sentences with other discourse markers that relate them to previous sentences (However, it’s a complete sentence – no one calls that incomplete, but you couldn’t start an essay with it; it requires a preceding sentence), and we have no issue with such things as pronouns that refer to entities in other sentences (most of the times we use he, she, or it we are referring to an entity established in a different sentence, so the sentence is not self-sufficient). The fact that a sentence in isolation is semantically incomplete does not make it syntactically invalid.

(It occurs to me that a church can be quite a good place to let opening conjunctions pass unremarked, even at the very start of a passage. A famous hymn begins “And can it be that I should gain an interest in my saviour’s blood?” A common Christmas reading from the Bible starts “And in that country there were shepherds.”)

Meanwhile, no one seems to have qualms about Why? even though it is clearly less complete than the sentence that followed.

It’s true that certain registers (tones, contexts, levels of use) tend to exclude the use of conjunctions at the start of sentences; this is because someone made up that “rule” and the people who established those registers tended to adhere to it. But registers also shift over time in what they allow, and even formal writing is gradually coming back to match ordinary English – and the English of Shakespeare and other greats – in this respect.

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9 responses to “Why? Because it’s a complete sentence.

  1. I’m sorry to say, there are people who say you can’t begin a sentence with “However.”

    http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1377663

  2. But, then, I had no two-minds about that thing since I was introduced to elementary Grammar in school. As soon as you see a full stop, the sentence ( or word) following should begin with an upper case.

    I do not know why or how, I have had this belief in my mind that it’s not a good habit to start a sentence with ‘But’ or ‘And’ ! Do you have any suggestions about that, James?

  3. And I don’t disagree.

  4. I have always understood that a subordinate clause standing alone is not a complete sentence. In fact, that’s sort of what differentiates a subordinate clause from an independent clause. I understand that there is something arbitrary about all our grammatical divisions — where we choose to make the cut — but it is a useful distinction from my experience teaching young writers.

    I’m NOT saying that it isn’t perfectly fine to judiciously use incomplete sentences in our writing. I think it’s crazy to insist on complete sentences or suggesting that using fragments is “wrong” or “poor grammar.” This is a purely semantic argument (about semantics).

    Isn’t there a difference between coordinating conjunctions like “and” and “but” and subordinating conjunctions like “because?” I’ve always understood that subordinating conjunctions adhere to the clause, subordinating otherwise independent ones. Coordinating conjunctions, on the other hand, stand apart and simply join equal ideas.

    BTW, I agree that it’s fine to begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions. As you pointed out, the Bible does it often (And God said, “Let there be light…”, “But to all who received him…”). I always tell folks, if God can start sentences with conjunction who am I to disagree?

    So, I guess the summary is: You suggest isolated subordinate clauses are complete sentences and therefore okay. I say they are incomplete sentences (fragments), but they’re still usually okay. Do I have that right?

    • Actually, ultimately, I question the value of the complete/incomplete distinction. You are right that there is a structural distinction of position between coordination and subordination, but in truth (as shown by syntactic analysis through generative grammar – “syntax trees”) each clause is a full sentence connected to another sentence by coordination or subordination, and each “complete” sentence is a potential subordinate or coordinated clause that simply lacks an overt connector to its context. When we write a paragraph, the “independent” sentences in it all have relations thematically; we just don’t always connect them explicitly. You may find it an interesting exercise to rewrite a whole paragraph as one sentence.

      I find syntax quite helpful in clarifying all this, but they’re a bit hard to draw in comments…

      Welcome to Sesquiotica, by the way, and I hope you continue to enjoy it!

  5. Thanks for the quick response and the warm welcome.

    I tend to come at grammar/semantics from the perspective of a writing teacher and find the complete/incomplete distinction (as well as the independent/subordinate and coordination/subordination distinctions) useful in helping middle and high school students overcome common communication problems. That’s not to say I don’t recognize the arbitrariness and over-simplification of some common grammar terms.

    I’ll be reading regularly. This is right up my alley.

    • Ah, yes, from the perspective of teaching writing, it is useful to cover the effect of overt connectors. The issue one must always be on guard for, naturally, is that students often take suggestions as rules and subtle distinctions as hard delineations. I’ve long thought that a bit of introductory generative grammar (syntax trees) would greatly benefit everyone from the junior high level on up. I covered a little bit of the topic in “How to explain grammar,” though to some extent I was simultaneously too simplistic and too complex – if I cover the topic again in future I’ll adjust some things. But I’d be interested in your impressions on it.

  6. I’ll take a look. I completely agree with your “rules and hard delineations” comment. The truth is that students assume all kinds of non-existent “rules” because far too many teachers insist on them as rules.

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