Telegraphic Sentence: Definition & Examples

Telegraphic Sentence: Definition & Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You don't need to learn Morse code in order to understand telegraphic sentences. This lesson discusses the origin and definition of these concise sentences and provides a few examples of them.

Telegraphic Sentences Defined

Many of us may become frustrated with the character limits in text messages or on Twitter, but imagine using a telegraph and having to pay by the word for the privilege! Needless to say, most telegrams were short out of necessity. It's no coincidence, then, that concise sentences typically containing five words or less are known as telegraphic sentences.

The term telegraphic speech (which these sentences are a subsection of) may be inspired by much older technology, but it was coined in the early 1960s while behaviorist Roger Brown and psycholinguist Colin Fraser worked on a study for their article 'The Acquisition of Syntax.' During their study, Brown and Fraser observed thirteen toddlers and noted their speech patterns. What they noticed was that, in their early stages of being able to construct sentences, these children tended to omit all information and additional verbiage that wasn't necessary to their being understood. For instance, a two-year-old would respond, 'Daddy fall,' rather than, 'Dad tripped over my fire truck and fell down the stairs.'

Aside from just extra information, Brown and Fraser noted that the children also typically omitted function words, or those used to express grammatical relationships with other words. For example, the toddlers were seen to frequently leave out articles (e.g. a, an, the), conjunctions (e.g. and, or, but), prepositions (e.g. to, at, from), and auxiliaries (e.g. would, has, be). The researchers also recognized a tendency to omit inflections, which are endings added to word bases to alter grammatical function and meaning. These include things such as an -'s to make 'tree's' possessive, or an -s to make 'hides' plural (noun) or third-person singular (verb).

Examples of Telegraphic Sentences

Take a look at some examples to see what's been left out of these telegraphic sentences:

Leave on doorstep.

No one really sends telegrams anymore, but telegraphic sentences might still pop up when we want to leave a quick note. For instance, you could be out and want the mail carrier to 'Leave (your package) on (the front) doorstep.' In simply writing 'Leave on doorstep,' though, you're acknowledging that the carrier will most likely know what you're talking about leaving (your package), as well as that you mean the front doorstep since the note is probably somewhere in the vicinity.

Brown, Fraser test syntax acquisition.

Short, punchy sentences can also often be found in newspapers and other forms of informational media. Headlines like 'Brown, Fraser test syntax acquisition' are already long enough by many traditional print media standards. It's no surprise, then, that they would want to leave out space-eating conjunctions like 'and' while substituting a concise and economical comma.

Will arrive tomorrow 5pm.

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