Verbless Sentences

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One of the basic grammatical rules in English is that every sentence should contain a verb. Some of Daily Writing Tips’s readers may have had sentences underlined in red at school if they weren’t a “proper sentence” – and I’m sure many of you (especially fiction writers) have had Microsoft Word squiggle a green line under a sentence saying “Fragment (consider revising).”

But there are times when you may want to use verbless sentences for effect, and I would argue that in all except very formal types of writing (such as reports at work and student essays), this is entirely appropriate.

Verbless sentences in fiction

Fiction writers, in particular, should not be afraid of experimenting with verbless sentences – many famous authors use them to great effect. Grammatical rules tend to be relaxed in fiction (especially, though not exclusively, in dialogue) so if your style lends itself towards writing choppy or stark verbless sentences, give it a try.

These are the opening sentences to several paragraphs in Chapter Two of Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.)

A chair, a table, a lamp. …
A window, two white curtains …
A bed. …

Verbless sentences in blogging

Another medium where verbless sentences are often entirely appropriate is in blogging. Most blogs are informal and conversational, written like a friendly letter to the reader. Just as novelists do, bloggers can use verbless sentences for effect – often grabbing the readers’ attention. The online form also means that short, snappy sentences are most likely to engage a reader – and leaving out verbs can accomplish this.

Here’s an example from the Men with Pens (the last sentence is verbless):

He thought I was joking. “Dude. They’re seriously not sold in pairs. Who just uses one?”

“Jeez. They obviously employ geniuses in their marketing department.”

Or crooks.

Verbless sentences in opinion articles

Even if you’re writing for a traditional publication – perhaps a newspaper or a magazine – you might be able to get away with using the occasional verbless sentence. Opinion pieces, in particular, tend to be popular due to the writer’s unique style – and this may involve a blog-like chatty tone.

Here’s an example from Robert Crampton, who writes the popular Beta Male column in the UK national newspaper The Times.

The cash haemorrhage continues. A raffle. Another raffle. A fiver on the final score. A fiver on the first scorer. A fiver on the last scorer.

If you take care to make sure each of your sentences is a “proper” one, then give yourself permission to experiment today. In the next piece of fiction you write, or the next article for a blog or magazine, try using a few verbless sentences. If you’re not sure how to do this, here’s a few examples:

  • She asked, “Have you done the laundry yet?” Fat chance, I thought.
  • She asked, “Have you done the laundry yet?” Fat chance.
  • I went through the mental check list again: lunch boxes, water bottles, swimming towels, keys, change…
  • Lunch boxes. Water bottles. Swimming towels. Keys. Change…
  • Danny rides his bike up to the shore, and stares out at the waves. They’re crashing close. The tide’s coming in.
  • Danny rides his bike up to the shore, and stares out at the waves. Crashing. Close. The tide’s coming in.

Let us know how you get on! And if you’re a stickler for putting a verb in every sentence, and think this rule shouldn’t be broken, please do add your thoughts in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “Verbless Sentences”

  1. Such fragments have their uses. In the hands of a thoughtful writer they add drama and punch. I use them when I feel they are called for.

    To call such fragments “sentences,” however, is to wrench the meaning of the word. When speaking about our craft, I find it useful to have words that mean specific things in the context of writing. Sentence and fragment are two such words. A sentence has a finite verb. A fragment does not.

  2. Good point, Maeve. I did hesitate over whether to use an alternative to “sentence” (I considered “phrase”, though “fragment” would probably be a better one). What do others think?

  3. I think that verbless sentences make a paragraph, and idea, a thought stronger. This is especially true when ‘inside’ a character’s head. We think in fragments and we speak to each other in fragments. I also think leaving out verbs helps us keep our writing more active and less passive.

  4. ” He thought I was joking. “Dude. They’re seriously not sold in pairs. Who just uses one?”

    “Jeez. They obviously employ geniuses in their marketing department.”

    Or crooks.”

    I would have got torn apart in school for those kind of sentences. haha

  5. Maeve,

    When I saw the snippet for the pingback in my email this morning I thought, great, did I make a major faux pas?

    I was pleased to see I didn’t. I often use fragments for a dramatic or comedic punch, whether it’s on the blog or in my fiction writing.

    Thanks for the link!

  6. Hmm, I think this is the problem with my writing. I avoid verbless sentences like the plague. Once I am done editing one of my posts, all the conversational tone is gone and it reads like a newspaper copy.

  7. @Nimic – Like James says, don’t be afraid to occasionally bend or break a rule. Chuck a verbless sentence into your next article, I dare you!

    @James – For some odd reason, you and Harry were the first bloggers to come to mind when I was planning the above post…

    “Most likely not.”
    “So, yes.”
    “Of course not. ”
    “Be honest.”

    …I think the short, pulls-you-up-sharp sentences/fragments are one of my favourite aspects of the Men with Pens style. Part of that bad boy charm has gotta come from living a lawless life outside the rules of grammar. 😉

  8. Okay, my first comment is either stuck in moderation or got eaten by the net gremilins.

    This was an excellent post and I had the same reaction as James, almost. Mine was more of a “oh damn, did I make a major goof? That’s not right…oh, wait…she’s saying *good* things! Okay, whew, all is right with the world again.

    Yeah, I do write in fragments, but I make sure it works and it’s usually for dramatic or comedic punch.

    @Ali: Bad boy charm, huh? I like that.

  9. @ Blogging – Heh. And look today – people pay for it.

    @ Nimic – It’s important to know what the rules are, definitely. Then know when to break them and why.

    @ Maeve – I think the term “verbless sentences” was the right term for this post, though, because that term in itself makes any writer sit up and think, “Pardon me? There’s no such-” Click. Read. “Ahhh, yes of course!” It was a great choice.

    @ Ali – Hehe, you should’ve seen my face when the trackback came in. “What?! Verbless sentence! Why we never do anything like th- Oh. Yeah. Um, okay, yeah, we do.”

    As you mention, though, these types of fragments create impact when well selected and used sparingly. They do have their place!

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