What do you call a phrase without a main clause? For example, answering a question:

Are you to blame for the increase in deaths?

Of course not!

The answer cannot stand alone. Is there a name for this?

Edit: Above is not a good example. I am trying to explain spoken language as a written text. The text is an interview. The interviewer has asked a question, and the answer starts with 'because' and refers to information in the question, and alone does not make sense. So it cannot stand alone. Does this make this a sentence fragment/subordinate clause or something else?

  • You mean something other than an answer or an utterance? – tchrist Feb 11 '18 at 15:33
  • Possible duplicate of Sentences with no verb – Edwin Ashworth Feb 11 '18 at 15:53
  • It is a main clause, but one that has ellipsis of the subject pronoun and the auxiliary verb. In full, it would be "Of course I'm not!" – BillJ Feb 11 '18 at 17:53

Phrases such as Of course not can certainly stand alone, both in speaking and writing. But they are not fully-formed sentences of the type: simple, compound or complex.

The term for an incomplete sentence is sentence fragment or just fragment. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (p317) has this extract in the entry on sentence:

Sentence fragments

In ordinary conversation, the sentences uttered may not be fully-formed like those illustrated in section 1 above (i.e., simple, compound or complex). When taking turns to speak, conversationalists often produce sentences whose wording builds partly on the one before, without repeating every element.


The use of sentence fragments and elliptical connections between them makes for highly efficient and highly cohesive discourse.

In your example, Of course not is an ellipsis of the fully-formed sentence:

Of course I am not to blame for the increase in deaths.

In answer to the edited question, a stand-alone subordinate clause (dependent clause) is also called a sentence fragment. The Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (p522) has this entry on sentence fragment:

(in composition) an incomplete sentence which cannot stand on its own.

For example:

Whenever I try to hold a conversation with my parents about my career is a sentence fragment because it is a dependent clause which contains a subordinating conjunction and should therefore be connected to an independent clause.

  • @Johanna Clark. Please see my edited answer above. – Shoe Feb 11 '18 at 16:20
  • 'Stand alone' is perhaps not exactly the right term, given that there needs to be related (usually prior) context. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 11 '18 at 17:46
  • @JohannaClark It's not a fragment. It's a main clause with radical ellipsis. In this case the subject pronoun and the auxiliary verb are ellipted. It's okay in casual style. – BillJ Feb 11 '18 at 17:56
  • I would say that Of course not! is the fragment that results from the radical ellipting of subject and copula. Owl at Purdue says: Some fragments are not clearly pieces of sentences that have been left unattached to the main clause*; they are written as main clauses but lack a subject or main verb. (*i.e., as 'stand-alone' subordinate clauses). owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/620/01 – Shoe Feb 12 '18 at 12:23

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