Mistake of the Month: Sentence Fragments

by • July 29, 2013

The flipside of June’s mistake of the month, run-on sentences, is sentence fragments – which are snippets of words that don’t quite add up to a complete thought. Without a subject and a predicate, a string of words and punctuation does not a sentence make. There are several common types of sentence fragments, including:

•   Subordinate clause fragments
•   Participle phrase fragments
•   Infinitive phrase fragments 

Let’s take a look at each of them.

To understand sentence fragments, we must first know what a complete sentence looks like. In its most basic form, a sentence consists of a subject (a noun) and a predicate (a verb). In rare cases, the subject is implied and you can leave off the noun, as in the imperative sentence, “Go!” Let’s stick with the basics for now.

Example: I ran.

In the example above, “I” is the subject, the doer of the action. “Ran” is the predicate. We can add clauses and descriptors to this basic sentence, further developing our thoughts: “I ran far away,” “Because I was being chased by a flock of seagulls, I ran far away,” etc.

Grammatically sound sentences like “I ran” are also called independent clauses. Because they’re independent, they can stand by themselves as complete thoughts. Dependent clauses, on the other hand, lack either a subject or predicate. Writers run into trouble when their dependent clauses attempt to masquerade as complete thoughts.

Subordinate Clause Fragments

Incorrect: Because of Sarah’s bad hip.

“Because” is a subordinating conjunction that indicates the start of a subordinate—or dependent—clause. This fragment withholds key information from the reader. For example, what happened to Sarah because of her hip?

Correct: Because of Sarah’s bad hip, she was no longer able to compete in ballroom dance tournaments.
Correct: They had to walk slowly because of Sarah’s bad hip.

Participle Phrase Fragments

Incorrect: Worrying about money.

In this example, we have a participle phrase that seems to have broken off from a complete sentence. We don’t know who is doing the worry or what impact it has. To correct this, we need to fully develop the thought.

Correct: Worrying about money ruined their marriage.
Correct: Monica was tired of worrying about money.

Infinitive Phrase Fragments

Incorrect: To find El Dorado.

An infinitive is a verb plus the word “to.” In the example above, “to find” is the infinitive. On its own, an infinitive phrase doesn’t constitute a complete thought.

Correct: Many explorers risked their lives to find El Dorado.
Correct: To find El Dorado, many explorers risked their lives.

Are Fragments Ever Okay?

Like most rules of English grammar, there is an exception to the rule. Sometimes sentence fragments can be used stylistically – however, do not abuse the privilege. Stylistic fragments belong in informal writing or creative work, and even then they should be used sparingly. They can be used to increase tension in a scene or to convey narrative tone, but too many fragments dilute the effect.

Example: Running through the trees. Gasping for breath. They were close. Too close. She wasn’t going to make it.

Example: If John didn’t find a job soon, he was going to be out on the street. He’d tried everywhere—temp agencies, bookstores, libraries. Even Dairy Queen. Nothing. Not even a nibble.

Most of the time, automated spellcheckers don’t discriminate between intentional sentence fragments and mistakes, so you’ll have to use your best judgment. For more tips on identifying and correcting sentence fragments, another great resource is Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

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