The Sentence Fragment: Friend or Foe?

So, let’s begin. With a definition. A sentence fragment is, well, obviously when a sentence is incomplete—a fragment of a complete sentence. A piece of the sentence pie. A slice of the cake. A shapeless knob of bread ripped out of the loaf. Enough? OK.

                On a serious note, to understand what a sentence fragment is, you need to understand what constitutes a complete sentence. Basically, in order to have a complete sentence, you need a subject—the main noun of a sentence, the WHO or WHAT the sentence is about—and a verb—usually an action; what did the subject DO? If one or both of these sentence puzzle pieces are missing, you have a sentence fragment. Here’s an example: Steve, in a sharp leather jacket, out of the store. What’s missing? You got it: A verb. What did he do? You can assume he walked or strode or strutted out of the store. Maybe he pirouetted. Basically, the sentence is missing an essential component. This example would warrant a dark-red underline on an essay… but, is there perhaps a different medium where fragments are OK to use? Let’s discuss.

When should I avoid sentence fragments? 

                You should avoid sentence fragments in academic and professional writing. Essays, dissertations, government legislation, emails to your boss, reports, etc. There is no good reason to have a sentence fragment in any of these types of writings. And, really, how would you feel if your bank statement arrived, and you could tell there was a grammar mistake, sentence fragment or otherwise? As a personal aside, the English faculty at Mount Royal University, while I was a student there, held to a very rigid tenet: three errors in any given grammatical error resulted in, at best, a D+. Sentence fragments were included. Pretty scary, eh? Your GPA could be ruined for a couple spelling errors, comma splices, or sentence fragments.

How can I fix a fragment?

                If you find your grammar and/or editing skills a bit weak, there is a simple way to find and fix a fragment: Use your imagination to make every sentence into a yes/no question. If you cannot, or you need to add a subject or main verb, you’ve got a fragment. Take our initial example: Steve, in a sharp leather jacket, out of the store. If I were to make this sentence into a question, it would look something like this: Did Steve, in a sharp leather jacket, walk out of the store? You see, I didn’t need any prior knowledge of grammar to know that I needed to add a verb. I just knew that I needed one. This editing exercise is great at using your innate knowledge of grammar, so I suggest using it regularly if you are worried about writing in complete sentences. This technique is also great for run-on sentences, but that’s for another article!

So when should I use a fragment, then?

                This is where the fun begins, if you’re a grammar nerd like me. Let me ask you, “Do you enjoy writing fiction, letters to your love, texts to your kids? Ever write a journal? Maybe a blog?” If you’re in high school, you’re probably dabbling in journal writing and storytelling, maybe some script writing. These mediums of communication are all casual, and you can play with the grammar a bit, especially in script writing; who talks in complete sentences all the time, anyway? You want to mimic the way people communicate orally, and so of course you are going to have shattered sentences all over the place.

                But more to the point, in these modes of communication, fragments can be used to create effect. Look at these three sentences and find someone with whom to discuss the differences:

  1. The steaming tea burned his tongue to ash.
  2. To ash, the steaming tea burned his tongue.
  3. The steaming tea burned his tongue. To ash.

First off, are all of the sentences complete? I mean, do they have a subject and a verb? Number one does, yes (the steaming tea = S, burned = V). Ditto for sentence number two. So, is there a difference in the sentences’ meaning? Not really; however, there is a difference in strength. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one is stronger. But number three is where things get interesting. Number three is unique; it has two sentences—one with a subject and a verb, the second with neither. One complete sentence and one fragment, but both are interlinked like a tea bag in water. And the final sentence is most certainly the strongest of the bunch. It emphasizes, through the fragment, just how hot the tea was, never mind the hyperbole.

                When used correctly, sentence fragments can bring a lot to a piece of fiction, screenplay, or letter. However, there are some caveats to keep in mind. First, do not overuse sentence fragments outside of dialogue. It becomes very tedious for a reader to decode fragment after fragment. And if you, as a writer, make everything strong, you have no tools left for you when it really matters. You should carefully consider what to make strong and where to put it. Second, be wary of taking the risk. Fragments are not grammatically correct. Be. Careful. Finally, ensure that when used, fragments are used in the right context. In my tea example, the fragment is essentially a piece of punctuation, a triple exclamation point. Writing a fragment can sink the reader into your writing but, if done incorrectly, pull them out.

                Hopefully, now you know when to use a fragment and, more importantly, when NOT to use one. Remember to edit your essays for fragments and eliminate them by ensuring each sentence has a subject and a verb. Do so by creating yes/no questions out of your sentences. And, of course, use fragments in your fiction/screenplay/letters sparingly—unlike me!

                For experts only: reread this article and find all the sentence fragments. How many did you find? I counted… 6… in the first paragraph. Too much?