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Short Sentences in Books, Movies, and Speech

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Ernest Hemingway was a famous American writer. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

One of his most famous books, The Sun Also Rises, ends with the following words:

'Yes,' I said. 'Isn't it pretty to think so?'

Today, we are going to consider the grammar behind the sentence: 'Isn't it pretty to think so.' In this program, we will study how English speakers use shortened sentences. We will hear examples of other short sentences from films, books, and fictional conversations.

But first, we will start with some definitions.

Shortened clauses

Clauses are groups of words that have a subject and a predicate.

A predicate is a group of words that tells something about the subject.

When a clause has a period at the end of it, it is a sentence. For example, in the sentence, 'I love English grammar,' the word 'I' is the subject, and 'love English grammar' is the predicate.

Sometimes, sentences have many clauses. These clauses can begin with the word 'that' or a word beginning with the letters “wh-”, such as why, what, where, or when.*

For example, in the sentence 'We hope that you enjoy learning English grammar,' the words 'that you enjoy learning English grammar' are a clause. The clause begins with the word 'that' – it is an example of a that-clause.

When speaking, Americans often shorten clauses that repeat what they have said earlier. In addition, they often shorten clauses that repeat what someone else has said.

These short expressions usually occur after certain verbs.

We will now explore these verbs and a few shortened clauses they often go with.

#1 Know, remember, wonder

Speakers often shorten “wh-” clauses, usually after they use the verbs wonder, know, or remember.

When speakers shorten the “wh-” clauses, they usually only use the “wh-” word itself. They leave out the rest of the clause.

Here is an example. Imagine two friends talking about a third person who apparently went missing the night before.

Tom didn't come to the show last night!

I wonder why?

In the example, the second speaker used a shortened clause. Instead of saying 'I wonder why Tom didn't come to the show last night?', the speaker said, 'I wonder why?'

This is an example of a shortened “wh-” clause after the verb 'wonder.' The speaker did not want to repeat all of the information discussed earlier. Such lengthy speech would create very long and slow conversations!

Now, let’s consider a second example. In the 2004 film Crash, actor Sandra Bullock says the following line:

I'm angry all the time, and I don't know why… Carol, I don't know why!

Here, Bullock says 'I don't know why' instead of 'I don't know why I am angry all the time.' She uses a shortened “wh-” clause after the verb 'know.'

The two examples we gave you both had the word 'why' in them: 'I wonder why?' and 'I don't know why?'

These are two very common uses of a shortened “wh-” clause.

Please remember that English speakers will also use other “wh-” words in shortened clauses. You might hear a person say '…he doesn't remember where,' for example.

#2 Guess, say, think, hope

Now let's turn to a second group of clauses. They are called “that-clauses”.

Speakers often shorten “that-clauses”, usually after they use verbs such as guess, say, think, and hope.

The word 'so' often takes the place of the “that-clause”. This sounds difficult, but we will give you examples to clarify the point!

Here is one from the 1991 film The Man in the Moon.

- 'Maureen? Is it always gonna hurt this bad? Mama says it won't. I hope she's right.'

- 'I hope so.'

Here, the second speaker says 'I hope so' instead of the full sentence, 'I hope that she is right.'

​In other words, 'so' takes the place of an entire that-clause.

Now, let’s consider a second example. Remember the lines you heard at the beginning of this report?

'Yes,' I said. 'Isn't it pretty to think so?'

Just before those lines come in Ernest Hemingway's book, two characters, Jake and Brett, are talking about their unfulfilled love for each other. Brett says that she and Jake could have had such a good time together.

Jake responds with the famous line:

'Isn't it pretty to think so?'

Jake could have said 'Isn't it pretty to think that we could have had such a good time together?'

Such a line would have been much less elegant than Hemingway's ending!

What can you do?

The next time you are reading a book in English or talking with an English speaker, try listening for examples of shortened clauses. Does the writer or speaker use one of the shortened clauses we talked about today? What verbs does the speaker use with the shortened clause?

Try using examples of shortened clauses that you hear. Or try to use some of the examples we told you about.

If you practice using shortened clauses, we think that you will make progress.

No, we know so.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm John Russell.

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

*Other words that do not begin with wh-, such as 'how,' are also in this group.

Words in the Story

grammar n. the study of groups of words and their uses in sentences

conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people; the act of talking in an informal way

occur – v. to appear or exist; to be found

gonna – short for 'going to'

respondv. to say something as an answer to a request

character – n. a person in a theatrical production, book or movie

elegant – adj. simple and clever

practice – v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it

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