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Major and minor sentences
A major sentence is a regular sentence; it has a subject and a predicate.
A minor sentence is an irregular type of sentence. It does not contain a finite verb. For example, "Mary!"
"Yes." "Coffee." Other examples are headings, stereotyped expressions (Hello!), emotional expressions
(Wow!), proverbs, etc. This can also include sentences which do not contain verbs (e.g. The more, the
merrier.) in order to intensify the meaning around the nouns (normally found in poetry and
Major sentences
So far, we have referred to sentences without providing any definition of a sentence. The question "What
is a sentence?" is more difficult than it might appear. An American linguist, C. C. Fries, counted more than
two hundred definitions of the sentence. In defining a sentence, too, it is important to remember that
written prose and informal spoken language are different. The sentence is the basic building block of
written language. In the past, sentences were often defined according to their meaning. For example, they
were said to contain "a complete thought". This raises all sorts of questions about the difference between a
complete thought and an incomplete one.
A common definition today is: "A sentence is marked by a capital letter at the beginning and a full-stop at
the end."
This works for many English sentences, but there are many languages, such as those in Asia, that do not
use this punctuation. Also, it is possible to have written sentences without capital letters and punctuation
In traditional school grammar, a sentence was said to contain a subject and a predicate: a major
classroom occupation was analysing sentences into subjects and predicates. (The predicate is all the
rest of the sentence after the subject.)
Subject Predicate
The cat smiled.
The cat smiled enigmatically at Alice.
This is how the American linguist Leonard Bloomfield, writing in 1926, defined a sentence:
Each sentence is an independent linguistic form, not included by virtue of any grammatical construction
in any larger linguistic form.
In other words, a sentence is capable of standing alone.
It is even more difficult to define sentences in speech.
I drove it into town - and um - yeah 'cos I knew that area quite well 'cos that was the same area as I stayed
in - two years ago at Point Chevalier - and then that night we - Mike made a - curry vegetable pie - we had
that - and um - that was it - um - then that was the evening yeah we had a couple of nice bottles of red
wine - we drank really nice red wine all weekend there - and what else did we do - Saturday we got up and he put the fire on 'cos it was cold and stormy - quite stormy up there ...
For this reason, the term utterance rather than sentence is often used for spoken material.
Minor sentences
There is a small group of sentences that are called minor sentences. These tend to have a set form that
is not often changed. They cannot be analysed in the same way as regular or major sentences. This
book is concerned mainly with major sentences. Minor sentences, however, occur often in everyday
David Crystal, in Rediscover Grammar with David Crystal, has suggested the following classifications of
minor sentence types.
Formulae used in social situations:
Thanks. Hello. Yes. No. Cheers. How do you do? 'Bye for now.
Interjections (emotional noises):
Tut-tut. Hey! Ugh! Ow! Eh? Shhh!
Proverbs or pithy sayings (aphorisms):
Easy come, easy go. The more the merrier. Like father, like son.
Abbreviated forms, used in instructions, postcards, and commentaries:
Mix well. Once more with feeling. Wish you were here. One more lap.
Words and phrases used as exclamations, questions, or commands:
Bother! Happy birthday! Nice day! The hell with it! All aboard! Oh for a drink of water! Taxi? No entry.
Some of the examples above contain finite verbs: Mix well; wish you were here. These have been included
as minor sentences because elements of the basic clause structure have been omitted:
Mix it well. (major sentence)
Mix well. (minor sentence)
I wish you were here. (major sentence)
Wish you were here. (minor sentence)
Minor sentences also occur as answers to questions or depend for their meaning on a previous sentence.
PC Timms: Where are you going?
Aiden: To Greymouth.
PC Timms: When are you leaving?
Aiden: Early tomorrow morning.
PC Timms: Who's going with you?
Aiden: My brother Tim and his girlfriend Nancy.
Aiden's answers to PC Timms's questions are still sentences, but they are minor sentences. These can also
be called elliptical sentences because part of their structure has been omitted (Latin ellipsis: "falling
A: Where are you going?
B: [I'm going] to Greymouth.
A: When are you leaving?
B: [I'm leaving] early tomorrow morning.
Minor sentences are not the same as incomplete sentences.
"I hope that you ... " Sidney choked and stopped.
"I can tell you who the murderer is! Look at the ..."
A shot rang out, and she slumped to the floor.
Early language learners may have difficulty in recognising sentences and will need guidance. They need to
understand that there are different kinds of sentences without necessarily knowing the appropriate labels
for them.
Minor Sentences
Minor sentences are not constructed in a regular way. They use unusual
and abnormal patterns which cannot be clearly analysed into a sequence of
clause elements in the same way that major sentences can. There are only a
few minor setence types but we find them all the time in conversation and
when conversations are represented in fiction, or in signs and notices,
headlines, websites and similar settings where a message has been
represented as what Crystal calls a 'block' (p. 216). Minor sentences do not
obey the same grammatical rules as major sentences which is why appear
so odd when we analyse them. Examples include componets of
conversation such as 'hello', and 'how do you do?', or emotional or
functional noises such as 'Ow!', 'Ugh!', 'Shh!' and 'Eh?' as well as proverbs
and sayings like 'easy come, easy go,' and words and phrases used as
exclamations, questions, and commands, such as 'nice day!, Taxi?, and All
In their form all minor sentences are characterised by reduction. There are three basic types: ellipsis,
formulaic non-sentences and irregular sentences.