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The Sentence Fragment: A Matter of Style

One of the most irritating writing habits for an editor to correct is poor sentence structure. As an editor, I don’t mind weak sentences, but poorly structured sentences in rapid repetition will make me want to claw my eyes out. I find my brain stuttering over them. Fragments, comma splices, run-ons—oh, my!

However…

Did you see my sentence fragment up there? Did you notice it? Did it hurt your brain, or did it remind you of The Wizard of Oz?

In writing, there’s a place for everything, even poorly structured sentences. When you know the rules, you can break them and strengthen your voice, style, and impact.

The Sentence Fragment Defined

A sentence fragment is, at its simplest, an incomplete sentence. So, because it’s useful to look at the right way first, let’s define a complete sentence. For a sentence to be complete, it must have three things:

A subject (the actor in the sentence—a noun, proper noun, or pronoun)
A predicate (the verb or action)
A complete thought (it makes sense on its own—it’s independent)

A complete sentence can be as short as two words:

Ann cried.

Or, a sentence can be very lengthy and contain several thoughts:

After the fairies taunted her all morning, and because her tunic was stained with huckleberry juice from the food fight, Ann cried under the oak tree until the sun dried the hill.

A fragment is a dependent clause that is left to twist in the wind, lonely and without purpose or meaning:

After the fairies taunted her.
Because her tunic was stained.

What do these fragments have in common? They start with subordinators. Take off the subordinator at the beginning and voila! You have a complete sentence: “The fairies taunted her. Her tunic was stained.”

Another common sentence fragment is the prepositional phrase left to stand alone. For example, in the sentence above, “under the oak tree” is a prepositional phrase. To leave it on its own creates a sentence fragment because 1) there is no verb or action, and 2) it doesn’t express a complete thought. “Ann cried under the oak tree” is a complete sentence.

But, I like fragments!

I am the first to admit that I love fragments. I think they add punch to our writing when used appropriately and infrequently. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to use fragments in the following cases:

Dialogue: This is the ideal place for fragments, and they can improve dialogue and make it sound more realistic. People rarely speak in complete thoughts, and in the flow of conversation, fragments are common. One very common use of fragments is with a question/answer exchange:

“Why did she leave?”
“Because the king threatened her life.”

“When will you come home?”
“After the tribal hunt.”

Rapid Action Sequences: Action sequences are a great place for prepositional phrase fragments or verb fragments. Used carefully, single verbs and lone prepositional phrases can add urgency and intensity to a scene without miring it in proper structure. Here are a few fragments that I think you could justify using in an action sequence:

Stab, parry, slice.
Notch, aim, release.
Down the hill, into the melee.
Around the tree, over the stream.

If you put fragments like those in the midst of complete sentences, and you use them sparingly, they’ll heighten tension and action without making the reader’s brain stutter.

Poems and Songs: You don’t have to be a poet or a songwriter by trade to make up pieces for your fantasy, and these little interludes are perfect opportunities to play with sentence structure and rhyme. Here’s a stanza from a song I wrote for Ravenmarked:

I dreamed of distant warhorn’s call,
Of steadfast lion’s pride,
Of sunset over blooded isle,
Of darkened raven sky.

Okay, technically, if you put that all together, it’s almost a complete, if somewhat unconventional, sentence. But on their own, lines two through four are fragments. The point is you have freedom and flexibility within the constraints of poetry and song to play with structure. Use it.

Exclamations: The best example is one similar to what I used at the beginning of this article—the three nouns plus “oh my!” Almost any grammatical oddity can be forgiven within an exclamation.

I love my fragments, and I use them perhaps a little too much. I think they contribute to a more conversational, engaging tone, and they can add a lot of impact when used carefully. But as always, too much of anything is…well, too much. So go forth and fragment your thoughts, but be judicious about it. If your brain stutters, so will your readers’.

Next week: My thoughts on the hero spectrum.
In two weeks: Comma splices and the run-on sentence.

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14 Comments

  1. Nice, Amy. I love fragments too, and I agree they work better when used infrequently. Or in dialogue. To create an effect. ; )

  2. I see what you did there. 😉

    I love ’em, but I was reading something recently (a traditionally published book–fantasy–can’t remember which one) where they weren’t used well. It wasn’t that they were too frequent–they were just in odd places where they made my brain stutter. Or they were odd fragments that didn’t flow well, or something…

    Of course, I can’t read anything like a normal person anymore… 😛

  3. MTMaenpaa says:

    Great article, Amy! And I hear ya on not reading anything like a normal person…

    While I’m comfortable with the strength of my writing, at least with sentence structure, I have a writing partner that will shortly have this article in his inbox.

  4. Lisa Nowak says:

    One type of fragment I’ve been seeing a lot of lately is in dialog. For example:

    “Please let the cat out,” calling over her shoulder.

    I don’t know why I’m suddenly seeing so much of this. I’ve virtually never seen it up until about a year ago, but recently I’ve come across it on several occasions. It doesn’t work, people!

    But I do love me some fragments.

    • Oh, Lisa, that makes my brain hurt just to read it! What kind of editor would let that stand?? That’s crazy! I’m absolutely in agreement with you–that does NOT work!

      I love my fragments, too, and stupid fragments like that give good fragments a bad name!

  5. A.J. Zaethe says:

    This article was great and easy to follow. I love it when someone can clearly state what they are thinking. Unlike myself who not only speaks but writes in a riddles. My friends hate me. ^_^

    Fragment sentences, I dare say, occur to often with myself. I need to learn more control.

    I look forward to more of your work.

    • Thanks, A. J.–I’m glad you found it informative and easy to follow. 🙂

      Riddles–there’s another great place for fragments… Combine them and see what your friends think… 😉

  6. Sara says:

    FYI, I included this excellent post in my Saturday blog round up. 🙂 http://www.smreine.com/2011/03/saturday-round-up.html

    • Hey, Sara, thanks for the shout-out! Appreciate it! 🙂 Sorry it took so long to respond to this comment–I just thought today that I should come back here and see if there was anything else. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for a good article Amy!

    I had this problem with some of my sentences. I’ve got a good editor who pushes me to get rid of them but allows me to keep them in situations very similar to what you describe. In particular I think the use of fragments does improve dialogue because this is naturally how we speak (I am a professional English teacher in China) and it also helps fight scenes if used appropriately.

    • I agree, Paul. And if fragments are part of your voice, you shouldn’t be afraid to use them. Sounds like your editor is flexible, which is great. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

  8. Autumn2May says:

    My husband edited my story for me and more than once I had to tell him to leave a fragment where it stood. “That’s not proper grammar!” he would say. But sometimes improper grammar just sounds better. 🙂

    Of course there were spots where he was right, and I ended up changing it later, but don’t tell him I said that. 😉

  9. […] use a colon after a fragment if you would have intentionally used a fragment there to begin with. Fragments are great tools in fiction, and if you use them well, I don’t see why you can’t use a colon after them. But, you can see […]

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