The Writer’s Toolbox – Fragments, Part II

Sentence fragments are exactly what they sound like: pieces of a sentence. they’re incomplete because they are either missing a major component (a subject or predicate) or because they’re actually dependent clauses, unable to stand on their own without the larger context of an independent, standalone clause (sentence).

Here’s a secret, though: sentence fragments may be incomplete sentences, but that doesn’t mean they should be excised from your work. Fragments lend a punchy, staccato effect to certain types of writing, and when used in moderation they can create emphasis or a more conversational, informal feel. In fact, they’re a valuable part of a writer’s toolbox.

Most of the time.

See what I did there?

If you need a more detailed refresher, check out last week’s Toolbox; otherwise, let’s take a closer look at fragments, how you can fix them, and whether or when you’d want to.

Answering Questions
As with many grammatical standards, there’s a question of time and place. Fragments usually don’t belong in formal writing, including most essays and papers. “Answer in complete sentences” is the classic elementary school instruction, but It’s good advice to take with you all the way to adulthood. Whether You’re answering questions on an assignment or in a testing environment, full sentences?not fragments?are the way to go (even if the fragment is a more accurate representation of how you’d answer the question orally). In fact, It’s likely your instructors and professors will expect or require full-sentence answers.

As an illustration, compare these answers to the question “Why doesn’t Gandalf meet the hobbits at the Inn of the Prancing Pony?”

Example A: Detained by Saruman.

Example B: Because he was detained by Saruman.

Example C: He was detained by Saruman.

Only Example C is a complete sentence. Example A is a sentence fragment since it includes a predicate, but no clear subject. Example B is also a sentence fragment?a dependent clause attempting to stand on its own. Example C, however, has both subject and predicate and is not dependent on another clause for meaning or context.

This type of fragment is easy to fix, as you can see above. Just work it into a standalone sentence with subject and predicate. You can go simple, as in Example C, or more detailed and complex?whatever is appropriate for the situation:

Example D: Though the hobbits didn’t realize it at the time, Gandalf had been imprisoned by Saruman, who in his pride and greed hoped to convince him to ally with Isengard.

Longer Works
The same principle applies to longer formal writing, like essays or term papers. In particular, watch for dependent clauses masquerading as complete sentences; often they can be joined with other clauses to create full sentences that convey the same information in basically the same way.

Example E: Many epic fantasies include the archetype of the mentor. Like Gandalf, who provides wisdom and encouragement to Frodo along the journey.

Example E (reworked): Many epic fantasies include the archetype of the mentor; here, Gandalf is the guide who provides wisdom and encouragement to Frodo along the journey.

Example E (reworked): Gandalf fulfills the fantasy archetype of the mentor, providing wisdom and encouragement to Frodo along the journey.

They can also be amplified into standalone sentences of their own.

Example E (reworked): Many epic fantasies include the archetype of the mentor. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf provides wisdom and encouragement to Frodo along the journey.

The Beauty of Balance

If You’re writing an informal article, a memoir, or a work of fiction or creative nonfiction, you have a lot more flexibility in terms of what’s considered acceptable grammatical structure. In fact, the judicious use of sentence fragments can add life and rhythm to your work.

Example F: The length of a flight from Prague to New York. The construction date of the Sydney Opera House. The name the state hospital used twenty years ago. All crazy-picky things that editors with no social life obsess about getting correct?but that really don’t matter. Right?

Here, the whole example is composed of sentence fragments?but it works (I hope) because it sets a certain informal tone and emphasizes both the individual points and the main issue that the author’s trying to get across. Reworking it in full sentences wouldn’t have the same effect. In fact, it might come off as clunky or heavy-handed.

Fragments are also increasingly popular in Young Adult literature, especially in works written in first person, because of the intimate, conversational feel.

Example G: School was a drag today. Like yesterday. Like the day before. Like always.

But even in very informal writing, fragments can lead to choppiness or slow the pace if overused. In Example F, several fragments are placed back to back, but they’re varied in length and rhythm. In Example H, there’s little length variation, and toward the end of the example the pace begins to plod:

Example H: School was a drag today. Like yesterday. Like the day before. Like always. Tired. Bored. Because I don’t like school. At all.

Like a square screwdriver when you’ve got a star-shaped hole, sometimes sentence fragments simply aren’t the right fit for what You’re writing. But while they may not be complete sentences, they play an important role in a more informal setting, as long as they don’t overwhelm it. Experiment with fragments in your own writing and see where they take you?you might just find they’re your newest writing “toy.”

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.