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A question for an English class:

Can you have a complete sentence without a subject? English professors have always told me no, but consider the following:

"To check on those girls."

"Check on the girls."

Aren't both of these complete sentences? If so, what is the subject (if any) for each?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Edwin Ashworth, NVZ, Nigel J, Gary, Skooba Nov 14 '17 at 13:55

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    Q: Where are you going? A: to check on those girls. The answer is short for: I'm going to check on those girls. – AmE speaker Aug 21 '17 at 1:01
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    Many -- perhaps most -- actual utterances are not complete sentences. Listen to any conversation between people who know each other. it's full of elided subjects and objects and verbs because they're taken for granted and people who already understand them don't feel like dotting all their I's and crossing all their T's in private conversation. Two common patterns: building on a previous sentence somebody else said, like a Q-A pair, here; and Conversational Deletion, producing utterances like Ever been to Cleveland? – John Lawler Aug 21 '17 at 2:28
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Q: Where are you going?

A: to check on those girls.

The answer is short for:

I'm going to check on those girls.

As others have said Check on those girls is an imperative, which often has an "implied" second person subject.

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In short, yes, you can have sentences without subjects.

First, though, with reference to your two candidate sentences, what do you mean by "without a subject"? Taking the imperative example ("Check on those girls"), there is clearly no subject visibly or audibly present, but most (not all) grammarians have contended that the subject is there by implication: "Subjectless imperatives are typically assumed to contain phonologically-null subjects that are specified for 2nd person" (Anatol Stefanowitch, University of Bremen: http://www.stefanowitsch.de/anatol/fu-berlin/p/ms-stefanowitsch2003_eicba.pdf ).

And as others said, "To check on those girls" isn't a complete sentence on its own. In context, there is something else elided. ("Where are you going?" - "[I am going] to check on those girls.")

That said, I believe sentences can lack subjects (and verbs). Most people will consider "Darn!" or "Hello" to be a sentence.

Fowler's Modern English Usage (2nd ed., 1965) gives examples such as "And what of the will to power?"; "So far so good"; "So then"; "Now for his other arguments".

Traditionally many of these are explained by saying that there must be missing, understood material that has been elided, but this is really rather a stretch and requires forcing the material to fit a model rather than analysing it neutrally. As Fowler says: "it would be straining language to say that they are elliptical in the sense that 'a subject of predicate of verb (or more)' must be 'understood'" and yet they "cannot be denied the right to be called sentences."

One final point: the answer to your question also depends on how you define a "complete sentence". If you choose to define it such that a sentence without a subject is incomplete, then it becomes axiomatic that a complete sentence must have a subject. In that case, though, your whole enquiry would have been pointless.

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"Check on those girls" is an imperative statement with an implicit subject of "you". (I do not consider the other example to be a grammatical sentence.)

Another sentence with an implicit subject is "Thank you." It is an abbreviated form of "I thank you."

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Talk. Go. Listen. Look. These are imperatives and the implicit subject is you.

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