In the 1964 action film Goldfinger, actor Sean Connery plays the British secret agent James Bond.
Bond, also called agent 007, is well-known for his drink of choice — a martini. He always wants his martinis prepared just the right way. Let’s listen to a short exchange from the movie:
Can I do something for you, Mr. Bond?
Just a drink. A martini. Shaken, not stirred.
Today, we will show you how this kind of exchange can teach you something about English grammar. Specifically, it shows you how English speakers use sentence fragments in everyday situations.
We will also use fictional conversations to show two common ways in which English speakers use these fragments.
But first, let’s start with some definitions.
Complete sentences and incomplete sentences
Complete sentences are sentences that have both a subject and a predicate. A predicate tells something about the subject.
For example, in the sentence “James Bond likes to order martinis,” the subject is James Bond and the predicate is “likes to order martinis.” In this case, the predicate gives us information about Bond.
In writing, you should use complete sentences. However, in conversation, you can use partial or incomplete sentences.
Incomplete sentences are not wrong. In other words, English speakers are not breaking rules when they use them. Instead, speakers leave out parts of sentences because the sentence’s full meaning is clear from the setting or context.
Today, we will explore two kinds of incomplete sentences: one group called “Minimal Responses,” and another called “Short Answers.”
#1 Minimal responses
Minimal responses* are simple words or expressions that speakers use to react to what somebody else has said. These are not complete sentences – they sometimes lack a subject, verb, or other important part of a sentence.
Americans commonly use minimal responses for two purposes: showing approval and giving a polite or respectful answer. We will now look at examples of both types.
Minimal responses can show approval
Imagine you tell your friend that you received a great grade on a difficult test:
I got an A on my test!
Here, your friend uses the adjective “nice” as a way to express approval about your statement. The reason your friend does not use a full subject and predicate is because his or her answer is understood in the context of a conversation.
Some other words and expressions that show approval are “good,” “good job,” “great,” “nice,” and “nice work.”
All of these terms have similar meanings. However, some are more forceful or less official-sounding than others. Think back to the example you just heard:
I got an A on my test!
A speaker could replace the word “nice” with almost any of the other terms we provided. They could say “good job” or “great job,” for example. “Great job” is a stronger statement than “good job.”
Minimal responses can give a polite response
Americans also limit their responses to make points in a respectful way during a conversation. Some of these are polite, yet informal. The most common examples include “no problem,” “no worries,” “sorry,” and “thanks.”
Imagine someone has just given you directions. You want to thank them before going on your way. The exchange might sound like this:
The other person could respond in even more informal way by saying “no worries” instead of “no problem.”
In both cases, the speaker’s response takes the place of a much longer sentence. For example, the speaker could have said, “I was happy to be able to help you out.” “No problem” is a short, polite way to express this same idea.
#2 Short answers:
A second type of incomplete sentence is the short answer. In short answers, speakers leave out subjects, verbs, or predicates. In general, the missing words appeared earlier in the conversation. Speakers do not repeat these words because repetition would make the exchanges much longer.
Let’s consider an example. Imagine you are looking for the nearest bank. The person you ask might provide a short answer:
Where is the nearest bank?
Right over there.
In the example, the speaker omits the subject and verb of the sentence. The speaker said, “Right over there” instead of the full sentence, “The nearest bank is right over there.”
If the speaker says “right over there,” he or she means that the bank is very close to you – probably within eyesight. In many situations, speakers will point with their fingers to show the direction of the bank.
Think back to the lines you heard earlier in this report:
Can I do something for you, Mr. Bond?
Just a drink: A martini. Shaken, not stirred.
In the example, James Bond uses the same type of short answer: an answer that omits the subject and verb. Bond could have said, “I would like a drink: A martini. I want you to shake it, but please do not stir it.”
This way of speaking is much more detailed, a lot longer, and polite. It does not fit with James Bond’s personality. He is not a very polite, talkative man.
That said, you can still learn from how he uses language!
What can you do?
The next time you are watching a film or with an America, try listening for examples of incomplete sentences. When the speaker uses an incomplete sentence, ask yourself if they used it for one of the reasons we talked about today. Does the sentence leave out important words, such as a subject, verb, or predicate?
If it does … no worries!
I’m Jill Robbins.
And I’m John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
*Please see Conrad, Susan, and Biber, Douglas. Real Grammar: A Corpus-Based Approach. Pearson-Longman. 2009 pg. 145
Words in the Story
stir – v. to mix by making circular movements
grammar – n. the study of words and their uses in a sentence
fragment – n. Grammar : a group of words that is written out as a sentence but that lacks a subject or verb
fictional – adj.
conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people :the act of talking in an informal way
response – n. a reaction to something; something that is said or written in answer to something
grade – n. a number or letter that shows how a student performed on a test or in class
fit – v. to be suitable or appropriate for (someone or something)