Are Incomplete Sentences the New Thing Or...?

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How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

Sometimes a sentence doesn't end where you'd expect, but. And yet somehow, you still know what the writer intended, so. This may be something you do all the time, or.

(I could go on like this, but.)

Here are a few more examples:

"What if I had a tumblr that was just pictures of toes, would you guys follow that or."

"I’d try to translate what all these technical terms mean, but."

"The picnic? Well, it's raining, so."

And it's not just words, it's also punctuation. Here are a few incomplete sentences ending with a comma that I found on tumblr:

"You wear that a lot." "Yes, that is because I, the proud owner of a washing machine,"

"If tumblr is so accepting, why is it that I, a brony,"

What's going on here?

The common factor in all of these examples is that while they seem to end abruptly, with a subordinator or comma that we'd expect to introduce another clause, the writer's intent is still very clear. So clear, in fact, that to continue and write a complete sentence would just belabor the point.

This set isn't even the first subordinator to be re-purposed for the purpose of ending a sentence incompletely — though started out life only used at the beginning of phrases ("though I like cats, I prefer dogs"), just like although still is. But over the past two centuries, though (but not although) has become equally acceptable at the end, where it has a slightly different meaning ("I like cats though" — you wouldn't say "I like cats although").

Here's a graph that I made from the Corpus of Historical American English. Each of these decades has approximately the same number of total thoughs, but the proportion that are found before a period has increased.

The same goes for punctuation. Of the two leading incomplete-sentence punctuation marks, ellipsis and dash, neither started out being used for the purpose. The older use of ellipsis is to indicate omitted text in a quote—the use of ellipsis to trail off is newer. Similarly, older dashes join clauses within a sentence, while newer dashes can be used for dialogue that gets interrupted.

So we've always had incomplete sentences, from truncated news headlines and standard trail-offs like "well…" or "but yeah" to more recent innovations like "because x" (because reasons, because yay) and "I can't even". Though, ellipsis, dash, and so on don't have the exact flavor conveyed by final hanging but, or, so, or comma, so perhaps we were lacking appropriate words and punctuation to indicate "this is so obvious I'm not even going to finish the sentence."

Where do trailing but, or, so, and commas come from? Some linguists think that final hanging but might be related to Japanese, where the particle kedo does the same thing, but that doesn't explain the other three. It could be the influence of speech on informal writing—speech contains more fragments than formal writing, so as we write more informally in texts and social media, perhaps we're looking for the flexibility of more incomplete sentences.

But regardless of the cause, it's not just that we're randomly forgetting to finish our sentences. Sometimes, some subordinators still sound pretty terrible at the end of a fragment by anyone's standards:

*Especially the ones that need to appear in pairs, if.
*More research is clearly necessary to figure out, when.

Part of a new series on internet linguistics.