Difference Between Sentence and Utterance

The main difference between sentence and utterance is that the sentence coveys a complete meaning, either spoken or written, whereas utterance usually does not necessarily convey a complete meaning.

Communication is the only way two human beings can interact and share their thoughts and sentiments with each other. There are two major means of communication as verbal and non-verbal communication. Sentences, therefore, belong to both verbal and non-verbal types of communication since they can either be spoken or written. Yet an utterance is typically a sound or incomplete spoken group of words that belong to the verbal type of communication.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is a Sentence 
     – Definition, Structure, Types
2. What is an Utterance
     – Definition, Characteristics
3. Difference Between Sentence and Utterance
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Communication, Words, Language, Sentence, Utterance

Difference Between Sentence and Utterance - Comparison Summary

What is a Sentence

A sentence is a complete thought or statement which conveys a complete meaning. This can either be in the spoken or written form. Thus, a sentence at least primarily consists of a subject, a verb, and an object. Addition to this fundamental parts in a sentence, there may be phrases and clauses as well. However, what should be kept in mind is that a sentence is a group of words that give a complete meaning.

In linguistics, sentence structures with regard to varied languages are learned. In the English language, the structure of a sentence is as follows:

Subject + Verb + Object

Accordingly, a sentence should consist at least these three fundamental components in order to categorize it as a sentence, or it must at least have a main clause to stand independently.

He went to school.

We study English.

My dog loves cats.

Main Difference - Sentence vs Utterance

Figure 1: Constituents in a Sentence

However, there are also several sentence categories that convey a complete meaning, especially with the use of intransitive verbs; for example, “She left”. Therefore, in a sentence, the main clause is a necessity.

Sentence Structures

There are four sentence structures as

  • Simple Sentence – a sentence with just one independent clause
  • Complex sentence – a sentence with an independent clause and at least one dependent clause
  • Compound sentence – a sentence with at least two independent clauses
  • Compound-Complex Sentence – a sentence with at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause

Sentence Types

Moreover, there are four types of sentences as

  • Declarative sentence – states a fact and ends with a period / full stop
  • Imperative Sentence – states a command or a polite request
  • Interrogative Sentence – asks a question and ends with a question mark
  • Exclamatory Sentence – expresses excitement or emotion

What is an Utterance

An utterance is considered the smallest unit of speech. It can be defined as “a natural unit of speech bounded by breaths or pauses.” Thus, it necessarily doesn’t covey a complete meaning. An utterance can, therefore, be a clause, a single word, pause, and even a meaningful statement.

However, unlike a sentence that can exist in both oral and written form, utterance exists only in the oral form. However, they can be represented and delineated in the written form using many ways.

An utterance, since it happens primarily in the oral speech, has several related features such as facial expressions, gestures, and posture. These include stress, intonation, and tone of voice, as well as ellipsis, which are words that the listener inserts in spoken language to fill gaps. In addition to these, an utterance may also include voiced/un-voiced pauses like “umm”, tag questions, false starts, fillers like “and stuff”, deictic expressions such as “over there” with other simple conjunctions like “and,” “but,” etc.

Difference Between Sentence and Utterance

Figure 2: Utterances

Moreover, to quote Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy from Cambridge Grammar of English (2006 ) “”We use the term utterance to refer to complete communicative units, which may consist of single words, phrases, clauses and clause combinations spoken in context, in contrast to the term ‘sentence’ which we reserve for units consisting of at least one main clause and any accompanying subordinate clauses, and marked by punctuation (capital letters and full stops) in writing.”

Hence some examples for utterances can be:

“Umm, what I …. No, don’t mind.”

“Well.. you know…. Errr”

Similarities Between Sentence and Utterance

  • Both a sentence and utterance convey a meaning to the reader or listener, either complete or incomplete.

Difference Between Sentence and Utterance


A sentence is a group of words that convey a complete meaning. On the contrary, an utterance is a natural unit of speech bounded by breaths or pauses, thus usually not conveying a complete meaning.


While a sentence exists in both spoken and written form, an utterance exists only in the spoken form.

Linguistic Category

Sentences are the basic structures in semantics whereas utterances are the smallest unit of speech.

Semantic Structure

The semantic structure of a sentence varies according to the language. However, a sentence basically has a subject, a verb, and an object. In contrast, an utterance does not have a specific semantic structure since even a burp, or a pause is categorized as an utterance.


Both sentence and utterance bear significance in linguistics and in communication among humans. Though they appear similar, they have distinct differences between them. The main difference between sentence and utterance is that sentence coveys a complete meaning expressed either in the spoken or written form whereas utterance usually does not convey a complete meaning and it is primarily expressed in the spoken form.


1. “Utterance.” SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms, 24 Apr. 2017, Available here.
2. “Utterance.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Aug. 2018, Available here.
3. Shrives, Craig. “What Is a Sentence? (with Examples of the Different Types of Sentence).” Ellipsis | What Is Ellipsis? Available here.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Constituent structure analysis English sentence” By Chiswick Chap – Corrected from File: Basic constituent structure analysis English sentence.svg by AnonMoos. – Own work (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Commons Wikimedia 
2. “He loves me pg 2″ by gokuspasm (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Deviant Art

About the Author: Upen

Upen, BA (Honours) in Languages and Linguistics, has academic experiences and knowledge on international relations and politics. Her academic interests are English language, European and Oriental Languages, Internal Affairs and International Politics, and Psychology.

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