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Is that really a sentence?

This basic editing strategy depends on a simple way to distinguish sentences from non-sentences.

This method uses the following sentence test (Noguchi, Grammar 55-56): “They refused to believe the idea that _____.” Plug a sequence of words into the slot. Only sentences will work in the slot.[1] Consider these examples, which are sentences (Noguchi, Grammar 56):

They refused to believe the idea that Jim and Sue can dance the tango.
They refused to believe the idea that the company, which employed many workers and made many different kinds of products, went out of business.
They refused to believe the idea that the cost of the three typewriters and the four clocks will be raised.
They refused to believe the idea that Tom ate some bad spaghetti and had a stomachache all day.
They refused to believe the idea that doing math problems isn’t one of Billy’s favorite activities.

On the other hand, non-sentences won’t go in the slot sensibly (Noguchi, Grammar 56, 77):
They refused to believe the idea that enjoyed the baseball game on Saturday.
They refused to believe the idea that whatever you could do to help my sister.
They refused to believe the idea that the wind howling through the trees last night.
They refused to believe the idea that your next-door neighbor is going to sell his car for $400 he should sell it for $800.
They refused to believe the idea that Nancy, impatient as always, ripped off the cellophane wrapper of the package, the icing of the cake came off with it.

The test frame “They refused to believe the idea that _____” works because it requires you to consider your sentences out of context. Therefore, non-sentences are obvious.

NOTE: “They refused to believe the idea that _____” can be simplified to “I think that _____.”

ADDITIONAL TESTS FOR DISTINGUISHING SENTENCES
FROM NON-SENTENCES   

If you are having problems distinguishing sentences from non-sentences using the “They refused to believe the idea that _____” test, there are two additional tests you can try: tag or yes-no questions. (Noguchi, Grammar 53-55). Only sentences can be transformed into tag or yes-no questions.  I invite you to test this for yourself. Tag questions will point out fragments, although the “They refused to believe the idea that _____” test is more helpful, in my opinion.

Tag and yes-no questions are especially helpful in editing for run-ons and comma splices. The tag question divides the run-on or comma splice into a statement and a question; this division marks the break point. If you use this test, read each item aloud. You should hear that one part sounds like a statement and one part sounds like a question; if you have difficulty hearing the statement and the question, have someone read the item aloud to you while you listen with your eyes closed (Noguchi, Grammar 79).

For example, consider this run-on: “Your next-door neighbor is going to sell his car for $400 he should sell it for $800. With the tag question, we have “Your next-door neighbor is going to sell his car for $400 he should sell it for $800, shouldn’t he? The tag question begins between $400 and he. We can test this division by performing the tag question test on the two new parts: “Your next-door neighbor is going to sell his car for $400, isn’t he? He should sell it for $800, shouldn’t he?” The yes-no question makes the break point of the sentences even more dramatic than the tag question: “Is your next-door neighbor going to sell his car for $400? Should he sell it for $800?

TAG QUESTIONS AND YES-NO QUESTIONS

Tag questions are questions that follow a sentence and ask for confirmation. Yes-no questions are questions which require a “yes” or “no” answer. They follow naturally from tag questions. Study the following chart, which uses our original examples. It contains individual sentences, tag questions, and yes-no questions:

Table 1: Is this really a sentence?

TAG QUESTIONS AND YES-NO QUESTIONS: PRACTICE

Table 2: Practice identifying real sentences.

From Rei R. Noguchi, Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: Limits and Possibilities, 46-47.

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