Political candidates like to use one or more grammatical structures
when they speak. They use grammatical structures because they can have a rhetorical
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
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
We say the words “am going to the store” are an incomplete sentence or
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
You may note that both Trump and Clinton begin their statements by using
Trump says, "Once again, France is the victim of brutal Islamic
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
They use these fragments for rhetorical effect.
Trump's use of fragments
Let's listen again to Trump's statement.
France is the victim of brutal Islamic terrorism. Men, women and children
viciously mowed down. Lives ruined. Families ripped apart. A nation in
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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
grammatical – adj. 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
conversation – n. an
informal talk involving two people or a small group of people
coherent – adj. logical