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Grammar and Presidential Elections: Part One


Grammar and Presidential Elections: Part One

Political candidates like to use one or more grammatical structures when they speak. They use grammatical structures because they can have a rhetorical effect.

In other words, the order of words and the way they are used can direct attention to important ideas and help make points clearer. This clarity, the candidates hope, will influence likely voters to choose them.

So, what grammatical structures can you find in political speeches? What can you learn from such speeches?

In our report today, we explore one grammatical structure commonly used in the American election campaign. This structure is called the deliberate fragment.

Complete sentences and sentence fragments

In English, a complete sentence has a subject and a predicate. A predicate is something that expresses what is being said about the subject.

Consider the sentence "I am going to the store."

The subject is "I" and the predicate is "am going to the store."

We say the words “am going to the store” are an incomplete sentence or fragment.

When English speakers use a deliberate fragment, they often present a noun or verb phrase as a sentence. The result is that the sentence does not have a subject and predicate.

So, a sentence fragment might be: "Going to the store."

In this example, the fragment does not have a subject.

The Everyday Grammar team avoids sentences like that. We know many of our readers are English language teachers. And we want to give learners a good model of English.

However, when used in a careful and intelligent way, sentence fragments can have great effect. Poets, songwriters, politicians and speechwriters have known this for a long time.

What do these sentence fragments look like?

Let's find some in recent speeches.

Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton used them when they officially accepted their party’s nominations three months ago.

In their acceptance speeches, both Trump and Clinton used complete sentences before presenting sentence fragments. They use these fragments to highlight or publicize ideas.

Consider these examples:

"Once again, France is the victim of brutal Islamic terrorism. Men, women and children viciously mowed down. Lives ruined. Families ripped apart. A nation in mourning."

"Our military is a national treasure. We entrust our commander-in-chief to make the hardest decisions our nation faces. Decisions about war and peace. Life and death."

You may note that both Trump and Clinton begin their statements by using complete sentences.

Trump says, "Once again, France is the victim of brutal Islamic terrorism".

Clinton says " We entrust our commander-in-chief to make the hardest decisions our nation faces."

Both of these statements are complete sentences: they have subjects and predicates. They are not missing any important words.

However, after using complete sentences, both candidates presented sentence fragments.

They use these fragments for rhetorical effect.

Trump's use of fragments

Let's listen again to Trump's statement.

"Once again, France is the victim of brutal Islamic terrorism. Men, women and children viciously mowed down. Lives ruined. Families ripped apart. A nation in mourning."

At the end of the comment, Trump uses a clear sentence fragment: "A nation in mourning." This sentence has no verb -- it is only a noun phrase.

This unusual structure directs the listener's attention to it.

The fragment "A nation in mourning" notes the results of the terrorist attack. It describes the effect of the violence, and notes the important point Trump wants to make: in his opinion, the world is not a safe place because there have been recent terrorist attacks.

What about the other sentences?

Men, women and children viciously mowed down. Lives ruined. Families ripped apart.

Trump is using a form of parallelism and the passive voice. Parallelism is when something is very similar to something else. In passive voice sentences, the verb acts on the subject, not the other way around.

The passive voice does not give information about the person responsible for the violence. Instead, it only gives information about the effects of the violence.

You can read about this subject in an earlier Everyday Grammar program.

The effect of this grammatical structure – using short, passive sentences and sentence fragments – is to create a strong mental image of the effects of the attack.

This grammatical choice – to highlight the effects of the violence – makes sense. Trump wants to persuade voters that Hillary Clinton will not be able to stop violence around the world.

Clinton's use of fragments

Now, let's listen again to Clinton's statement.

"Our military is a national treasure. We entrust our commander-in-chief to make the hardest decisions our nation faces. Decisions about war and peace. Life and death."

Clinton also uses sentence fragments after presenting a complete sentence. She follows her first two statements with a fragment, "Decisions about war and peace." This, too, does not have a verb.

Clinton could have said "The commander-in chief makes decisions about war and peace."

Or she could have said "The commander-in-chief decides when we go to war and when we remain peaceful."

Both of these possible sentences, even if they carry the same meaning, are longer and less direct.

By using two fragments – "Decisions about war and peace. Life and Death," Clinton is able to direct our attention to the importance of the decisions that the president makes.

She is telling voters that she understands the importance of these decisions.

She is also able to keep moving through her sentences without losing her listeners. She knows that if she keeps using the same sentence structure in every sentence, the listeners may soon lose interest in her ideas.

Should you use sentence fragments?

Both Trump and Clinton used sentence fragments because they have rhetorical effect. When they presented these fragments, they directed listeners’ attention to ideas that they wanted to publicize. They kept the listeners’ attention because they did not keep using the same basic sentence structure again and again!

Politics is not the only place you will hear or see sentence fragments. They also appear in songs, poetry, books, newspapers, and daily conversations.

Native speakers use sentence fragments because they can be a useful tool when you want to add something special to a long series of sentences.

However, in general, fragments are best used only once in a while – and only if you understand what you are doing with them!

Instead, you should be working on developing strong, coherent sentences that have a complete subject and predicate.

Remember: sentence fragments are like spices. You would probably never eat a meal that only has spices like black pepper or paprika. In the same way, you should not write a story in English that only uses sentence fragments. Such an essay would quickly become unreadable, in the same way that a meal made of pepper would probably be hard to eat!

I’m Jill Robbins.

And I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

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Words in This Story

rhetorical – adj. of, relating to, or concerned with the art of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people

deliberate - adj. done or said on purpose

fragment - n. an incomplete part

grammaticaladj. following the rules of grammar

phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people

coherent adj. logical and well-organized

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