“How did I escape? With difficulty. How did I plan this moment? With pleasure. ”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

I recently found out that when writing lists, items in a list don't have to be complete sentences, like "You might write to: Inform".

After this writer utilizes a question mark, it seems to get written, "With difficulty". That's not a sentence. Maybe I don't get how sentences utilize a subject, a verb, and an object. Some writers don't seem to utilize this. I don't think I understand. When can I write a complete sentence or not, when some writers seem to write things like this?

Is he writing with respect to what he formerly wrote? May these things get specified as fragments? May writers utilize fragments? Why are fragments sometimes utilized, sometimes not?

  • 12
    The idea that one can write only in complete sentences is something that teachers teach to children, so that they will form good writing habits. But as these children get older, they will find out that they do not always have to write in complete sentences. And often they will discover this the same way that you have: by encountering real written English.
    – user6951
    May 8, 2015 at 4:29
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    They are fragments. To expand on pazzo's comment, complete sentence are typically expected in formal writing such as nonfiction books or many literature. Everyday conversation, web blogs and personal email frequently use slang or do not adhere strictly to formal writing expectations. In stories, dialogue represents everyday conversation, so is not required to adhere to all the formal language rules. Consider- "First learn the rules, then learn when and how you can break them."
    – nickalh
    May 8, 2015 at 8:39
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    As for You might write to: Inform, you can't do that. Colons are used to introduce lists of items, and a list needs to have more than one item. So, you could say, You might write to inform, or you could say, You might write for any of the following reasons: to inform, to persuade and convice, or to entertain. Take a closer look at the rules for colons. There is more to this than whether what follows the colon is a sentence or a fragment.
    – J.R.
    May 8, 2015 at 9:17
  • @J.R. Except, of course, that in some cases introducing a list and then having only one item might serve as an excellent device for emphasizing there being only one option. Though of course there are more options for why one might write, so that particular example isn’t a good use of the device.
    – KRyan
    May 8, 2015 at 14:48
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    By the way, you seem to be misusing the phrase "seem to" (both in your question and in one of your comments on the answers below). "Seems to be" means that something appears one way, but the reality may be different. But here, "with difficulty" is written. You could, for instance, have written, "After this writer utilizes a question mark, he wrote, 'With difficulty.'" May 8, 2015 at 16:23

3 Answers 3


There's no rule that utterances have to be complete sentences. What they have to do is communicate.

Alice: How did you escape?
Bob: I escaped with difficulty.

Bob doesn't need to say I escaped here. Alice already knows she's asking about how Bob escaped. It's obvious from context.

But what about this conversation?

Alice: Hello!
Bob: #With difficulty.

Now Bob isn't making any sense. If Bob wanted to say that he escaped with difficulty, he'd have to use a complete sentence:

Alice: Hello!
Bob: I escaped with difficulty.

He has to use a complete sentence because there's no context to allow the fragment as an answer. The fragment doesn't make sense here; Alice needs to know what Bob did with difficulty.

In your example, the author is engaging in hypophora – asking and answering his own questions:

How did I escape?
I escaped with difficulty.
How did I plan this moment?
I planned this moment with pleasure.

It doesn't matter that it's in a list. It'd be fine with just one question and answer. The repetition is pleasing to the ear, though.

In this answer, the # symbol means "This utterance doesn't make sense in this context."

  • "The repetition is pleasing to the ear, though." It definitelys is, and I have only now realized, based on your answer, that although I watched the movie, I really should read the book!
    – Sabuncu
    May 10, 2015 at 17:32

This is conventionally called ellipsis, the supposed "omission" of words which are not necessary to understand the semantic and syntactic meaning of an utterance.

I put omission in quotation marks because nothing is in fact omitted unless you hold to the theory that only utterances which constitute a full sentence are acceptable, coherent, and meaningful. That this theory is in fact wrong is evident in virtually every actual conversation. For instance:

Going to Bryan's?
Nope. Homework.

This can be expanded by inference to two formally complete sentences:

Are you going to Bryan's home? No, I have homework I must do.

But that is a paraphrase. In fact, the two participants in that exchange know exactly what is meant, and have said everything that needed to be said, omitting nothing.

In the same way, the two questions posed in your example do not require a response framed as two complete sentences. Ignoring the device of having both the question and answer spoken by the same speaker: The interrogative how directs the hearer's attention to the speaker's lack of a particular datum, an adverbial, and the hearer replies by supplying what is wanted; he is not required to tell the questioner what the questioner already knows:

I escaped with difficulty. I planned this moment with pleasure.

  • "Utterances". Interesting. I think I like this. I don't think I got informed upon this, formerly. When you seemed to write, context, sailboat, I maybe seem to somewhat get it! I got that thing where you seemed to utilize a fragment that did not seem to go. "Hypophora". Interesting. I may not get what an, "interrogative" seems like. "Ellipsis", "datum", "adverbial". Interesting! Somewhat, maybe, arduous, to me. I think it seems interesting. I got information! I think I thought, "ellipsis" seemed like, ". . .". I think I got information. Interesting!
    – saySay
    May 8, 2015 at 2:40
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    @saySay The three dots (...) is called ellipsis. It is the punctuation used to explicitly represent an omission of words, which is the concept of ellipsis.
    – DCShannon
    May 8, 2015 at 3:00
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    "That this theory is in fact wrong" is making we want to downvote, even though the rest of this is useful. That's not evident at all. Everything else in the answer supports this theory, from my perspective. The context makes them full sentences, but without it they are not "acceptable, coherent, or meaningful".
    – DCShannon
    May 8, 2015 at 3:02
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    @DCShannon: The theory is disproven by the fact that they are (in that context) patently acceptable, coherent, and meaningful — indeed ubiquitous. If they were in fact meaningless no one would use them nearly as much. It is precisely the recognition that the context does exist and can provide what's needed that drives elisions of this sort. May 8, 2015 at 3:35
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    @DCShannon But language only exists in contexts. May 9, 2015 at 2:04

Fragments bad?

Why no.

Fragments good?


When fragments good?

Emphasis. Sense of speed. Rhetorical impact. Sense of action. Rapid response.

When fragments bad?

Too much. Not enough detail. Too many. Tired reader.

I'd add also that the most common cause of people revising both fragments and misdiagnosed fragments—both when they needed such revision and when they were better to begin with—is probably when the grammar checker on Word complains "Fragment. Consider revising", which is itself an example of sentence fragments.

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    Does Word really do that? If so, I wonder if the programmers wrote it that way for subtle humorous effect.
    – J.R.
    May 9, 2015 at 10:14
  • @J.R. possibly an influence, though it's also just the sort of situation in which heavily abridging is appropriate.
    – Jon Hanna
    May 9, 2015 at 21:55

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