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What's wrong with this sentence (other than that it is incomprehensible out of context):

Because I don’t know what you don’t know.

MS Word is telling me that this is a sentence fragment (I disagree). MS Word said the same thing about an earlier version of it:

Because I don’t know what it is that you don’t know.

I'm trying to write a FAQ for my syllabus (don't worry, I'm teaching math, not English). One of the Q&As goes like this:

How come your lectures are so terrible? Because I don’t know what you don’t know. If you ask more math questions – even stupid ones – I will get a better feel for your confusion.

I think this is a perfectly reasonable sentence. It means: I don't know what piece of information you don't have in your naive, little student brain, which makes you incapable of understanding my perfectly clear explanation of integrating using the shell method to calculate the volume of a solid generated by revolving a region outlined by a few functions around another line (I mean, really?).

The subject is "I". What am I doing? I'm not "knowing", the verb. And then the rest of the plain English sentence.

Or maybe is MS Word even stupider than a calculus 2 student?

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Your usage seems fine to me, you might want to avoid There are known knowns. –  Elliott Frisch Jul 7 at 7:51
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It's the answer to a question, and answers to questions don't have to be complete sentences. –  Rupe Jul 7 at 11:59
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Microsoft Word does not know the first thing about English grammar. Conversely, you had a firm grasp of English grammar long before you even knew the words "grammar" or "Microsoft" existed. This dumb tool should be your slave, not the other way round. I wonder why people keep using it against their own best judgment. It just wasted a considerable chunk of your precious lifetime with this question alone. –  RegDwigнt Jul 7 at 13:50
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It's a fragment for the same reason you can't start a sentence with 'and'. 'Because' and 'and' are followed by dependent clauses which means you must have an independent clause for them to make sense. –  j_buckley Jul 7 at 15:58
    
@RegDwigнt, I gave you one upvote. But only because the site won't let me give you two (or three). MS Word is a tool (and I would like back the 30 minutes I spent agonizing over whether this would be an embarrassing question to post). –  Jeff Jul 7 at 21:50
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3 Answers 3

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Firstly, Microsoft Word is correct in its designation of Because I don’t know what you don’t know as a fragment. Because is a subordinating conjunction that fronts a dependent clause. A dependent clause written alone without its associated independent clause is a prime example of a sentence fragment.

Secondly, it is worth regarding Word's grammar feedback as simply alerting the writer to certain aspects of the text that may be problematic. It does that also with all passives, for example. This feedback should not be regarded as prescriptive; there will be numerous occasions when the feedback can absolutely be ignored. Your context is one such occasion. The fragment Because I don’t know what you don’t know follows the question. There is no ambiguity and there is absolutely no need to avoid the fragment by re-including the question as the independent clause.

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+1 for the more complicated terminology :) –  Frank Jul 7 at 6:00
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+1 for also explaining how it's a perfectly fine stylistic choice, even if it's not formally grammatical. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 7 at 15:36
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It is a sentence fragment.

The Because makes it one.

I don't know what you don't know.

Is a sentence.

Because I don't know what you don't know I'll probably go over things you do know.

Is a sentence.

Because I don't know what you don't know

Is a fragment (because) nowhere in the sentence is Because explained.

I'm sure there's more complicated terminology for that.

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The problem is that the artificial rules of formal grammar do not permit statements that are bound by context alone. (The rule is often summarized as Thou shalt not begin a sentence with a conjunction.) You would be expected, in formal English, to write something like

My lectures are "terrible" because I don't know what you don't know.

In other words, even though the question Why X? is in plain view, you are still required to say X because Y rather than simply Because Y, even though it is unlikely that you would use X because Y in conversation unless you were being very explicit (perhaps because you needed to pick out an individual X from a question containing many things in the class X).

You may or may not be free to ignore this "rule", depending on the context in which you are writing. No doubt you will get some grief from the language mavens (to use Steven Pinker's term for them) if you go with the less formal and more natural formulation even if there is no Guardian Editor standing between you and your audience, but your formulation is only wrong according to artificial imposed rules rather than according to the actual grammar of the English language.

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You can write the "correct" sentence more succintly; "This is because I don’t know what you know." –  Taemyr Jul 8 at 9:43
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