“Answer in complete sentences,” said your fourth-grade English teacher. Well, of course you will?doesn’t everyone?
Not necessarily. Can you pick out the complete sentences here?
The best movie ever.
Although I’m too tired to come over.
Thinking about the best way to edit my assignment.
That moment when you find five errors just before you submit your paper.
Whatever you want to do.
Complete vs. Incomplete
All the above examples are sentence fragments?clauses, phrases, or otherwise incomplete “pieces” of sentences that may look like sentences, but aren’t. They’re common and have their uses (more on that later), but they can creep into more formal writing and prompt your instructor’s red pen to start moving.
Stumped? Let’s take a look at some grammar basics to sort it all out.
Subject and Predicate
In its basic form, a complete sentence has a subject and a predicate.
Subject: the actor, in the form of a noun + any modifiers (adjectives or clauses or phrases acting like adjectives)
Predicate: the action, in the form of a verb + any modifiers (adverbs, prepositional phrases, clauses or phrases acting like adverbs, etc.)
Example A: She went to the store.
Example A (broken down): She || went to the store. The subject/actor is “she”; the predicate/action is “went to the store” (the verb in there is “went,” but the verb alone doesn’t constitute the whole predicate).
It doesn’t matter if the sentence is flipped:
Example B: Where did she go?
Example B (broken down): She || did go where? Figure out the basic structure, and it’s easy to see that “she” is the subject and “did go where” is the predicate.
The same principles apply when the sentence is complicated:
Example C: The girl behind the wheel of the beat-up Toyota pointed frantically at the dark creature rising out of the fog.
Example C (broken down): The girl behind the wheel of the beat-up Toyota || pointed frantically at the dark creature rising out of the fog. Here, the subject “the girl behind the wheel of the beat-up Toyota” is clearly distinct from the predicate (“pointed frantically at the dark creature rising out of the fog”).
Some sentences may have compound subjects and predicates, but we’ll cover those another day. For now, remember that for a complete, standard sentence, you need a subject and a predicate.
Going back to our examples above, it’s easy to see that “For sure” isn’t a complete sentence, since it doesn’t have a defined subject or predicate (arguably “for sure” is part of a predicate, but with no context it’s impossible to break it down?and that discussion is way outside our scope here). Same deal with “Best movie ever.” But what about the other sentences?
Independent vs. Dependent
Complete sentences, with limited exceptions, require a subject and a predicate. But finding what looks like a subject and verb doesn’t give a sentence the Completeness Stamp of Approval, so to speak. Sometimes a phrase may appear to be a sentence, but it’s actually a dependent clause?a phrase or clause that needs to be propped up (is dependent) on an independent clause because it doesn’t really make sense standing alone, without the context of that independent clause.
Example D: I drove to the store today. This is a complete sentence; it’s got a subject and a predicate, and it doesn’t depend on any other clauses.
Example E: I drove to the store today because it was raining. This complete sentence includes an independent clause (“I drove to the store today”) and its dependent clause, “because it was raining” (which depends on the independent clause to provide context).
Example F: Because it was raining. Without the context of the independent clause, “because it was raining” doesn’t really make sense. It’s a dependent clause, so you can’t place it on its own and expect it to function as a complete sentence. Though it looks like it’s got a subject and predicate, it doesn’t really; it can’t stand on its own. Example F is a sentence fragment.
The other opening examples are all dependent clauses masquerading as independent clauses (sentences), and are therefore fragments. They’re dependent clauses because they require the context of an independent clause to make sense.
Let’s illustrate this further with “Thinking about the best way to edit my assignment.”
Example G: Thinking about the best way to edit my assignment is making me procrastinate.
Example H: I was too busy thinking about the best way to edit my assignment to actually edit it.
Example I: She taught me to spend time thinking about the best way to edit my assignment.
As you can see, the context of the independent clause provides meaning to the fragments; therefore, they’re incomplete fragments on their own.
Now that you can identify fragments in your own writing, you’re halfway there. But what’s the best way to fix them? With the heavier grammar out of the way, next week we’ll tackle applying defragmentation to your own work?and when and whether you might want to leave those fragments right where they are.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.