How to Avoid or Use Sentence Fragments
by Owen Fourie
What is wrong with these statements?
- Working for many hours without a break to finish their assignment.
- In the morning, in that village, and shortly before the storm.
- Shortly after the wall collapsed.
- A few of my friends playing computer games towards the end of summer last year.
- Although he is talented, funny, and a far better companion than his brother.
Let’s look at each of these fragments and turn them into sentences:
- Who is being described here? The subject is missing and needs to be supplied.
- Notice too that although the words working* and finish* look like verbs, they are not verbs, so we need a verb too.
- (To understand the functions of these *verbals, we would need to speak of participles, gerunds, and infinitives, but not in this post.)
- Try this: “They will be working for many hours without a break to finish the assignment.” This is a complete sentence.
- This statement tells us when and where, but we have no idea of what is happening.
- Again, the subject and the verb are absent.
- Try this: In the morning, in that village, and shortly before the storm, the fishermen sensed that something was wrong.
- That’s better. The fragment has been attached to an independent clause and has become part of a complete sentence.
- Here we have a subject – the wall, and a verb – collapsed, but this is not a complete sentence.
- It is a subordinate or dependent clause that needs to be attached to an independent clause.
- The thought is incomplete because it seems that there is something that happened shortly after the wall collapsed, but we are not told what it was.
- Try this: The hidden gold was discovered shortly after the wall collapsed.
- The dependent clause could also be turned into a complete sentence by using a comma: Shortly after, the wall collapsed. The introductory phrase before the comma is followed by an independent clause.
- This is fine as a caption for a photograph of your friends playing computer games but not as a sentence in a formal paper.
- It lacks a verb, which means it is not a complete sentence.
- It can be corrected by supplying an auxiliary (or helping) verb before the present participle playing.
- This will make it a complete sentence: A few of my friends were playing computer games towards the end of summer last year.
- Uh oh! This sounds as though you are about to say something derogatory about him, whoever he might be.
- The word although is a subordinating conjunction, and it is introducing a subordinate or dependent clause that cannot stand on its own.
- It needs the support of an independent clause.
- Try this: Although he is talented, funny, and a far better companion than his brother, the girls are avoiding him. Sad, but at least it is now a complete sentence.
What is a fragment?
A sentence fragment is a phrase or a clause that has the appearance of being a complete sentence because it begins with a capital letter and ends with a period or question mark or exclamation point.
However, it lacks certain elements that disqualify it from being accepted as a complete sentence as shown in the examples above.
As you write your formal papers, be conscious of the requirement to write complete sentences.
A complete sentence requires
- The capitalization of the first letter of its first word;
- A subject (a noun naming a person, a place, a thing, a quality) that will do or be something;
- A predicate containing at least one finite verb that describes the subject’s action or state of being;
- A concluding punctuation mark–a full stop or period, an exclamation mark, or a question mark;
- A complete thought.
You cannot use fragments in your formal writing, but that does not mean that fragments are never used in literature. To the contrary, the best writers employ fragments for good effect. The point is that they know the rules and they know when they can break those rules to achieve an objective.
Here is a paragraph from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
All these trivial incidents belonged to the routine of life, and the return of morning. Surely, not so the ringing of the great bell of the chateau, nor the running up and down the stairs; nor the hurried figures on the terrace; nor the booting and tramping here and there and everywhere, nor the quick saddling of horses and riding away?
In this entire paragraph, there is only one complete sentence, the opening sentence; the rest is a string of fragments describing hurried action as the result of a momentous event.
Have you ever caught yourself writing fragments? If so, tell us about it. Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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