Are these sentence fragments or phrases ? What is the distinction between the two as phrases don't always have subjects either. Online examples have some subordinate clauses as 'fragments' whilst others just have groups of words that look like sentences (rained all night).

Where do they stand grammatically just as they are written.

hit a nerve

keep it safe

let yourself in

find the keys to the door

useless detective can't catch the criminals.

find out who else can take care of the dog.

assume his identity is real

  • Your premise is incorrect. Every example you list (even the first one in the right context) does form a complete thought; they can each be turned into an actual sentence. Dec 3, 2018 at 17:18
  • In common usage, a phrase is usually a group of words with some special idiomatic meaning or other significance, such as "all rights reserved", "economical with the truth", "kick the bucket" What the difference with my examples ?
    – bluebell1
    Dec 4, 2018 at 19:10
  • You said "they don't grammatically complete a thought," but that's not true in the examples you've given. Your example sentences do grammatically completely a thought. Dec 5, 2018 at 15:10
  • I need to edit the question. I mean they don't stand as full sentences as there is no main subject in any of them. Hit a nerve (should be He hit a nerve)
    – bluebell1
    Dec 6, 2018 at 16:39
  • Hit a nerve can be taken as an elliptical imperative. Just as can Go to the store or Buy me a drink. (Although of all the examples, this would be the least likely to form a complete sentence in common use.) Dec 6, 2018 at 16:43

1 Answer 1


Something can be both a phrase and a sentence fragment, but they aren't the same thing.

Gramatically a phrase is a group of words that functions as a unit in the syntax of a sentence. So in the sentence "A vanilla ice cream with sprinkles looks tasty," "with sprinkles" is a prepositional phrase, "A vanilla ice cream" is a noun phrase, and "A vanilla ice cream with sprinkles" is a larger noun phrase. I can use any of these phrasal units to describe parts of the sentence. We could also talk about verb phrases - "looks tasty" is a verb phrase formed from the main verb and its complement.

A sentence fragment is any set of words that don't form a complete sentence. Maybe it's missing a syntactic element like a subject or verb; maybe it doesn't express a complete thought. In the example above, all of those phrases could be considered incomplete sentences if they appeared alone, but I could also form sentence fragments that are not phrases, like "looks" or "tasty." That said, when someone labels something a sentence fragment, it's usually because they're expecting a complete sentence.

To take your examples:

  • hit a nerve - could be read as an imperative sentence ordering someone to hit a nerve, so it's not a sentence fragment unless the context makes it clear that a subject is missing. It can be read as a verb phrase formed from the verb "hit" and the noun phrase "a nerve."

    keep it safe - same as before. You're just adding a bit more complexity.

    let yourself in - same as before.

    find the keys to the door - same as before

    useless detective can't catch the criminals. -can be read as a sentence with a subject ("useless detective"), verb ("can't catch"), and direct object ("the criminals"). We have multiple phrases forming this sentence. In this reading, unless context suggested otherwise, I'd say that there's a missing article: "The useless detective" or "A useless detective" "can't catch the criminals."

    find out who else can take care of the dog. - see the first response. This one only differs in how many smaller components form the verb phrase: "the dog" (NP) -> "of the dog" (PP) -> "take care of the dog" (VP) -> "who else can take care of the dog" (NP) -> "find out who else can take care of the dog" (VP).

    assume his identity is real - same as before.

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