What is a Sentence Fragment?

What is a Sentence Fragment?

No one escapes high school English without being penalized for writing the odd sentence fragment, but not everyone remembers what they are and how to fix them. Put simply, a sentence fragment is a clause that falls short of true sentencehood because it is missing one of three critical components: a subject, a verb, and a complete thought.

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We often fail to recognize our sentence fragments because our incomplete thoughts can easily masquerade as sentences. All a series of words needs is a capital at the beginning and ending punctuation and voilà! It looks like a sentence. Yet, for a sentence to be truly complete, it must contain an independent clause, which tells the whole story even when isolated from its context. Here is a glaring example of a sentence fragment:

Because of the rain.

On its own, because of the rain doesn’t form a complete thought. It leaves us wondering what happened because of the rain. To complete it, we need further explanation:

Because of the rain, the party was canceled.

Now the fragment has become a dependent clause attached to a sentence that has a subject (the party) and a verb (was canceled). Our thought is complete.

In that example, making the sentence longer was the solution. But that doesn’t mean that short sentences can’t be complete. This teensy sentence is complete:

I ran.

I ran may be a short thought, but it has a subject (I) and a verb (ran). Nothing in the sentence demands further explanation. Another famous example of a short-but-complete sentence is “Jesus wept.”

Avoiding sentence fragments not only makes your writing easier to read, but it can also make you sound more polished in polite correspondence. We’ve all had emails ending with:

Looking forward to seeing you.

That sentence lacks a subject. Adding the subject will build a stronger, more confident-sounding sentence:

I’m looking forward to seeing you.

It’s a subtle psychological difference, but if you are corresponding in a formal setting, it is worth taking care to write complete sentences. Fragments can sound as if they are carelessly blurted out.

Mending Sentence Fragments

Fixing a sentence fragment involves one of two things: giving it the components it lacks or fastening it onto an independent clause. Consider the following:

There are many ways to frighten little brothers. For example, by hiding under their beds and waiting for dark.

While this writer has great ideas when it comes to stealth, that second statement is not a complete sentence. It lacks a subject. You would be forgiven for thinking it had a verb, but “by hiding under their beds and waiting for dark” is a prepositional phrase.

There are two ways to fix this sentence. The first would be to latch it onto the complete sentence before it. Semicolons are great for connecting dependent clauses beginning with for example and however:

There are many ways to frighten little brothers; for example, by hiding under their beds and waiting for dark.

If that seems too formal for your purposes, you could fortify the fragment with a subject (you) and verbs for the subject to act on.

There are many ways to frighten little brothers. For example, you could hide under their beds and wait for dark.

Both remedies result in structurally sound sentences.

Stylistic Sentence Fragments

Without question, you should avoid sentence fragments in formal situations and academic writing. That said, a fragment within a clear context can sometimes serve a valid dramatic purpose. Journalists, bloggers, and fiction writers often use them. For example:

No one thought that Ethan could make the jump; it was just too high. All the same, he was determined to astound us. No matter what.

 

And he did.

Your high school English teacher would find three things wrong with this description. No matter what is a sentence fragment. And he did is a sentence beginning with a conjunction,  and it’s a one-sentence paragraph.

Gasp!

As always, judge for yourself who your audience is and how much wiggle room you have for breaking the rules. If you are telling a story, a few fragments might suit your purpose and style well, but if you are writing an essay or crafting a business document, it’s best to steer clear of them.

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