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Sentences and Utterances


We speak in sentences, but not every expression we utter is "well-formed" enough to qualify as a sentence. When our distant ancestor, caveperson Mog, was shown a brand-new cave painting and said Ugh!, we probably wouldn't call that utterance a sentence. We will, however, set it off with a nice number of its own, since that is a convention of texts like this:

(1) Ugh!
Mog's modern descendent, on the other hand, confronted with a new work of art, might well respond with a sentence:
(2) That's very, well, interesting.
That may not be significantly more articulate than Ugh!, but it is a sentence. It is not much of a sentence, but it is acceptable as such according to the rules of our language. An acceptable expression is not the same thing as a sentence, though. After all, even today, Ugh! would be recognized as communicating a feeling. Some pretty incomplete expressions are perfectly acceptable in certain contexts, as in answering questions:
(3) What is the first letter of the alphabet? A.
In (3), the second "sentence" consists of one letter. As an answer to the question posed, it is acceptable by the rules of our language, but if it stood by itself it would not be. It is not a complete sentence.

The notion of "completeness can be hard to pin down. In the dark ages, when I first studied these matters, a sentence was said to be "a complete thought." This wasn't very useful, if only because most of us speak a lot of sentences that have no thought behind them at all. Nowadays we'd be more apt to say that a sentence must be a "grammatically complete" set of words, one which has all of the functional parts it needs to meet the rules for sentences in English. Even this is not as simple as it seems, for it turns out that there are different kinds of sentences, grammatically complete in slightly different ways.

To speak of the functional parts (or constituents) of a sentence is not quite the same thing as speaking of the traditional parts of speech. Treating words as "parts of speech" sometimes assumes that they can be divided into separate species with different characteristics. It is true that the different sentence functions are most often performed by particular sets of words and because some of those words can serve only one function. But we need to be careful--some functions can be performed by more than one kind of word or phrase, and many words can serve more than one function. To illustrate this, let's look at some odd functions which can stand on their own without being sentences.

Interjections. Let's look again at (1) and (2). In the list of traditional parts of speech, the Ugh! of (1) would be characterized as an interjection, a brief emotive utterance. (They also used to be called ejaculations, but that term has fallen out of use as too apt to produce sniggers.) Interjections can occur both by themselves, as in (1) and as interruptions within sentences, like the well in sentence (2). There is a set of words which is usually used in this way. Even so, many such words can be used in other ways as well:<

(4) Hello!
(5) Hello, and welcome to my home
(6) Let's all give our new friend a big hello.
(7) Let's give her three cheers
The word hello is almost always an interjection, and that is how it is used in (4) and (5). In sentence (6), however, it is used where we would normally use a noun (e.g., a big hug). In sentence (7), cheers is a plural noun, as it usually is, but it can also be used as an interjection.

In the same way, some words and phrases which are normally used for other purposes can be used for interjections. This would include the profane use of religious names and terms, and a long list of obscenities. These are sometimes treated as a separate category from interjections, expletives, but here we will treat that as a semantic category, since many of the same words can also be used as adjectives. We can represent the use of such expletives as interjections here by noting some of their euphemistic replacements:

(7) Geez, can't you do anything right?
(8) Son of a gun!
(9) Shucks, I seem to have hurt myself.
More positive interjections of this sort also occur, especially in slang:
(10) Sweet!
(11) Cool, that's just what I wanted.

Vocatives. Now let's look at a traditional sentence function, the vocative. The vocative function is to identify the person(s) being spoken to, either by name (George) or by epithets favorable (sweetheart) or unfavorable (dummy). In some languages, words which name things (nouns) are marked with special inflections when they are used this way, but in English they are simply set off with punctuation. Vocatives behave rather like interjections. They can appear within sentences:

(11) Could you get me a beer, honey?
(12) I've told you, George, not to touch me.
(13) The point, stupid, should be obvious.
They can also be used in speech to call someone or try to get their attention, with or without accompanying interjections::
(14) George!
(15) Hey stupid!
Like interjections, vocatives can also convey feelings. When you were young, your mother was able to say your name in ways that suggested that you were the apple of her eye and in ways that made it clear that you were in big trouble. Try picking a nonsense name (like Gubble) and pronouncing it so as to convey a full range of emotions--pride, envy, anger, apathy, avarice, gluttony, lust, and any other sins that appeal to you. The exercise should make you respect our non-verbal communication skills, as well as help you recognize the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of a life of sin (or Gubble). Unlike interjections, though, there are almost no words in English which are primarily used as vocatives--sir and madam--come to mind as possibilities, so they have not been listed as parts of speech. There are, in fact, a number of expressions which can serve both as vocatives and as interjections, as in the following:
(16) Oh my God, forgive my sins [VOCATIVE]
(17) Oh my God, they've killed Kenny! [INTERJECTION]

Exercise 1: Interjections vs. Vocatives

Are the underlined words being used as interjections, vocatives, or something else entirely?
1.01 Have you seen my glasses, dear?
1.02 He was inclined to pooh-pooh that possibility
1.03 I haven't been well lately.
1.04 Is there an exam this week, Professor?
1.05 Oops, I did it again
1.06 That was a stupid mistake
1.07 That's what I've been trying to tell you, idiot
1.08 There's, uh, a fly in my soup
1.09 Wow, you are really into this
1.10 You have a lovely smile, miss

Both interjections and vocatives are sentence functions. Both can serve as separate utterances as well. The traditional designation of "interjection" as a part of speech makes sense for a handful of words which rarely serve any other function. But because words serve multiple functions, we need to start with the functional parts of sentences, and only then look at the words which characteristically fill them.

Just for the Record. When they appear in sentences, both interjections and vocatives are usually set off with commas. As we will see later, one of the most common uses of punctuation is to separate out such inessential parts of statements.

How Much of This Will be on the Test?
We have just begun our exploration of word categories (parts of speech) like interjections (also known as ejaculations and including expletives) and of sentence functions like vocative. We said that a sentence is an utterance that follows certain rules, but we haven't defined those rules yet. We've also used some traditional terms which we have not stopped to define, like noun. If you don't know what a noun is, the chances are that you once did--the traditional grammar side of what we are doing here is often just a review of what one knew in fifth grade. If you have forgotten, don't worry--we'll get around to defining nouns later. In meantime, you can always look things up in the Glossary In the meantime, most fifth-graders don't know interjections and vocatives, so you can hold your head high.