Sentence fragments

Today's topic is sentence fragments.

I often imagine that listeners are writing long things such as articles, essays, and books; but I was recently reminded that some people make their living writing shorter things like headlines and ad copy, and that keeping things short is hard work. “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” is a famous quotation—attributed to many people including Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal—that resonates with many people who write for a living.

Unfortunately, when writers focus too much on brevity, sometimes they leave out important words and produce fragments instead of sentences. Entering stage left, we have a new podcast character. [Fanfare.] Welcome, Sir Fragalot! Sir Fragalot flounces around the countryside shouting sentence fragments at unsuspecting strangers.

Sentences Need a Subject and a Verb

Sir Fragalot

Over the next hill! A tree with wings! On DVD December 19!

Grammar Girl

Oh dear! Poor Sir Fragalot doesn't know that you can't magically make any set of words a sentence by starting with a capital letter and ending with a period (or an exclamation point). In the most basic form, a complete sentence must have a subject and a verb.

  • Sir Fragalot
  • Leaving town!
  • Grammar Girl

No, Sir Fragalot, you don't have a subject or a verb. It would be “I am leaving town” or “He is leaving town.”

A verb is an action word that tells the reader what's happening, and a subject does the action of the verb. You can make a complete sentence with just two words:  “Squiggly hurried.” “Squiggly,” our beloved snail, is the subject, and “hurried” is the verb.

  1. Sir Fragalot
  2. Hurried onward!
  3. Grammar Girl

No, Sir Fragalot, it would be “Squiggly hurried onward.” “Squiggly” is the subject; he's the one hurrying.

Sir Fragalot

Humph.

Imperative Sentences

There's even a sentence form called the imperative that lets you make one-word sentences such as “Run!” Imperative sentences are commands, and the subject is always assumed to be the person you are talking to. If Squiggly looks at the aardvark and says, “Run!,” Aardvark knows that he's the one who should be running. It's such a strong command that he knows it is imperative for him to run.

  • Sir Fragalot
  • Run!
  • Grammar Girl
  • Good job.

Dependent Clause Fragments

So you can make imperative sentences such as “Run!” with one verb, and you can make simple complete sentences such as “Squiggly hurried,” with a subject and a verb, but there is also a case where you have a subject and a verb, but you still don't have a complete sentence. Ack! This happens when your fragment is a dependent clause, meaning that it depends on the other part of the sentence: the main clause.

If you're dependent on your parents, then you need them. It's the same with dependent clauses; they need their main clauses.

Dependent clause fragments usually start with a subordinating conjunction such as because, although, or if. I'm going to need more examples to explain this one. It  makes a lot more sense when you hear examples.

Let's go back to our simple sentence: “Squiggly hurried.” I'm sure you all get that this is a complete sentence because it has a subject and a verb, but look at what happens if you put a subordinating conjunction in front of it: “Because Squiggly hurried.

” By adding that “because,” I've completely messed up the sentence; now I need the part that explains the “because.” The “because” makes the whole thing a dependent clause that can't exist on its own. (Well, it can exist, but it's a fragment and that's bad.

) The dependent clause now only makes sense if it has a main clause; for example, “Aardvark was relieved because Squiggly hurried.”

Here’s another example. The word “that” can be a subordinating conjunction, so in some cases, if you put it at the beginning of a sentence, it can turn the sentence into a fragment. [Note: This sentence can be read at least two ways. If “that” is an adjective, it is a complete sentence. If “that” is a subordinate conjunction, it is a dependent clause.]

  1. Sir Fragalot
  2. That Squiggly hurried.
  3. Grammar Girl

Yeah, um, that doesn't make any sense, because it's a fragment; but you can tack it onto the same main clause we used before, turning it into the dependent clause it was meant to be, and it makes sense again. “Aardvark was relieved that Squiggly hurried.”

To sum up, there are some easy tests to see if you have a fragment. The easiest test is to ask yourself if there is a verb. If there's no verb, then it's a fragment. Then, if there is a verb and no subject, ask yourself if the sentence is a command.

If it's a command, then it's an imperative sentence, and if it's not a command, then it's a fragment. [Exception alert*] Finally, ask yourself if it is really a subordinate clause to the previous sentence. If it is, then it is a fragment.

That last one is a little trickier, but I'm sure you can do it!

  • Thanks to “Miss Peter” from the Music Nerve podcast for playing the part of Sir Fragalot.
  • Sentence FragmentsMignon Fogarty is the author of seven books, including Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
  • Diversions
  • Famous Quotes and Quotations

 

* I didn't have time to talk about it in the show, but there is another type of one-word sentence, called an exclamation, that doesn't have a verb or a subject. Exclamations usually express an emotion and end with an exclamation point. Here are some examples: “Ouch!” “Wow!” “Eureka!”

See also:  Who really killed rasputin?

Sentence Fragment Examples

A sentence fragment is a group of words that resembles a sentence. It will start with a capital letter and have ending punctuation; however, it is neither an independent clause nor a complete idea.

A sentence fragment can be very confusing for the reader, so usually, the best thing to do is to fix it by adding what is missing from the sentence or joining it to another sentence. Below see some sentence fragment examples and possible corrections, plus examples of how powerful an intentional use of fragments can be.

Some sentence fragments lack a subject.

Here are 5 examples of sentence fragments along with a possible revision that includes a subject:

  • Shows no improvement in your efficiency.Revision: The evaluation shows no improvement in your efficiency.
  • Slammed the door and left.Revision: Sarah slammed the door and left.
  • Running down the lane and into the forest.Revision: The moose was running down the lane and into the forest.
  • Discovered the cure for the disease.Revision: The researcher discovered the cure for the disease.
  • Gave many reasons but no logical ones.Revision: Our boss gave many reasons but no logical ones.

Some sentence fragments have a subject but no verb.

Here are fragment examples along with a possible revision including the verb:

  • A time of wonder and amazement.Revision: That was a time of wonder and amazement.
  • Clothes and shoes scattered around the room.Revision: Clothes and shoes were scattered around the room.
  • The elected official for our district.Revision: The elected official for our district was unpopular.
  • The answer to our prayers.Revision: This inheritance is the answer to our prayers.
  • Showing her award and gloating.Revision: Terri was showing her award and gloating.

Sentence Fragments that Are Dependent Clauses

Some sentence fragments are dependent clauses that cannot stand alone.

Here are examples along with a possible revision to make it a complete sentence:

  • Because it was raining.Revision: We canceled the picnic because it was raining.
  • After I finish the project.Revision: I will get a bonus after I finish the project.
  • Since she never saw that movie.Revision: We should invite her since she never saw that movie.

Rules for Finding and Fixing Fragments

A fragment resembles a sentence in two ways. Both groups of words begin with a capital letter and conclude with an end mark—usually a period [.] but sometimes a question mark [?] or an exclamation point [!].

The one important difference is that a fragment does not contain a main clause. Like an engine, the main clause powers a complete sentence, propelling the reader through the development of an idea. A fragment, missing this essential component, stalls on the page.

When you analyze a group of words looking for the main clause, you have to find three things: a subject, a verb, and a complete thought. If one of these three items is missing, a fragment results.

Here are examples of fragments:

  • And yawned loudly enough to make everyone in class turn around.
  • Subject = Ø ; verb = yawned; complete thought = Ø.
  • The boy sitting on the fire escape, dropping water balloons on the pedestrians below.
  • Subject = boy; verb = Ø; complete thought = Ø.
  • After Gabriel ate half a box of donuts.
  • Subject = Gabriel; verb = ate; complete thought = Ø.

You can correct a fragment two ways: 1) adding the necessary main clause or 2) connecting the fragment to a main clause already in the passage. Whether you add or connect, you must use the right punctuation.

Some fragments, for example, will require a comma if you connect them at the beginning of a main clause.

If you choose to connect them at the end, however, these same fragments require no punctuation at all. Other fragments will require a comma whether you connect them at beginning or the end.

To make an intelligent comma decision, you first have to identify the type of fragment that you have.

A fragment will often be a lone subordinate clause, participle phrase, infinitive phrase, afterthought, lonely verb phrase, or appositive. Each type of fragment has a marker that identifies it.

Subordinate Clause Fragments

A subordinate clause fragment [sometimes called a dependent clause fragment] will begin with a subordinate conjunction, a relative pronoun, or a relative adverb. You will also find a subject and a verb. Unfortunately, this combination of words will not express a complete thought by itself.

Think of the problem like this: At work, there are bosses and their employees, also known as subordinates. When the bosses aren't directly supervising, many subordinates neglect their responsibilities. In a sentence, the main clause is the boss. If the boss is absent, the subordinate clause goofs off, and the job of communicating a full thought doesn't get done.

Here are the words that will begin a subordinate clause fragment:

Subordinate Conjunctions
afteralthoughasas ifas long asas soon asas thoughbecausebeforeeven ifeven though howif in casein thatin order thatin so far asjust asno matter hownow thatonceprovided that rather thansinceso [that implied]so that thanthatthoughtillunlessuntilwhen wheneverwherewhereaswhereverwhetherwhile
Relative Pronouns
whichwhichever whowhoever whomwhomeverwhose
Relative Adverbs
when where why

These words are your markers for this type of fragment.

Here are some examples:

Because Chase caught the eye of the beautiful brunette in algebra.

Because = subordinate conjunction; Chase = subject; caught = verb.

What happened? Was he able to cheat on the test? Did he quickly ask her for a date? We don't know because the thought is incomplete.

Until Rachel notices the toilet paper stuck to her shoe.

Until = subordinate conjunction; Rachel = subject; notices = verb.

What will happen? Will she embarrass her date? Will people at the restaurant stare? We don't know because this is another incomplete thought.

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Even though Fred stuck straws up his nose.

Even though = subordinate conjunction; Fred = subject; stuck = verb.

What happened? Could he still not pass for a walrus? Did the McDonald's manager offer him a job anyway? We don't know because this thought is incomplete too!

Whom you can trust with the secret.

Whom = relative pronoun; you = subject; can trust = verb.

Who is this person? We don’t know because this thought is not finished.

Where the popcorn is stale and the soda flat.

Where = relative adverb; popcorn = subject; is = verb.

This sounds like a place to avoid, but where is it? We don’t have enough information to know because we have only half the thought.

Participle Phrase Fragments

A participle phrase fragment will begin with a word ending in ing or ed, or the fragment will open with an irregular past participle. More words will follow to finish the phrase, but nowhere will you find a main clause to complete the thought. By itself, a participle phrase cannot be a sentence.

Your marker for this type of fragment is the present or past participle that you will find at the beginning of the fragment.

Take a look at these examples:

  1. Sunning themselves on the hot concrete until they heard human feet crashing down the sidewalk.
  2. All the while twirling the baton with the speed and ferocity of helicopter blades.
  3. Sucked down the pipe with a hearty slurp.
  4. Hidden in the bureau drawer underneath a pile of mismatched socks.

Infinitive Phrase Fragments

An infinitive phrase fragment will begin with to followed by the base form of the verb, like this:

To + Verb = infinitive

Although more words will follow to finish the phrase, you will not find a main clause to complete the thought. An infinitive phrase—by itself—cannot be a sentence.

Look for the to + verb as your marker for this type of fragment.

Study these examples:

Only to watch in dismay as Dr. Frazier poured her chemistry experiment into the sink.

To catch butterflies for her biology project.

To break a piece of plywood with his bare hands.

Afterthought Fragments

An afterthought clarifies earlier information by providing specific details. When an afterthought does not contain a main clause, it is a fragment.

These words and phrases frequently begin afterthoughts: especially, except, excluding, for example, for instance, including, like, and such as.

These words are your markers for this type of fragment [although infrequently you will have just the list of details].

Here are some examples:

  • For example, leaky pens, candy wrappers, dollar bills, and paperclips.
  • Including the dog with three legs and the cat with one eye.
  • Such as leaving the stove on and teasing mean dogs.

Lonely Verb Fragments

Writers will sometimes forget to include a subject in a sentence. The result is a verb pining for its partner. With the subject missing, the word group thus becomes a lonely verb fragment.

A lonely verb fragment will often begin with a coordinating conjunction [and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet]. The marker for this type of fragment will be the immediate expression of action. Remember that a verb alone cannot be a sentence.

Study these examples:

  1. And dashed through the downpour as raindrops softened the hairspray shell holding her elaborate coif in place.
  2. But knew that all of his effort would prove useless in the long run.
  3. Took the thick book and, with a heavy sigh, loaded it on top of her research pile.

Appositive Fragments

An appositive is a noun phrase that renames and clarifies anther noun. Because an appositive can be long, writers sometimes mistake one for a complete sentence. By itself, however, an appositive is not a sentence.

An appositive fragment will begin with a noun and usually include one or more clarifying phrases or subordinate clauses after it.

Here are some examples:

  • The unprepared student who was always begging for an extra pencil and a couple sheets of blank paper.
  • A slacker wasting his afternoon in front of the television.
  • A dog around whom people need to guard their fingers and food.

You can fix any fragment by either 1) revising the fragment so that it includes a main clause or 2) connecting the fragment to a main clause that comes before or after it. When you connect, you have to know whether or not punctuation is required. Learning the nine punctuation rules that follow will help you not only fix fragments but also punctuate your sentences correctly.

Fixing Subordinate Clause Fragments

When you have a subordinate clause fragment, removing one thing—the subordinating word—will give you the necessary main clause. Look at this fragment:

Because Chase caught the eye of the beautiful brunette in algebra.

Removing because makes the thought complete. Chase is the subject, caught the verb. Now you have a sentence!

Chase caught the eye of the beautiful brunette in algebra.

If, however, you need the subordinating word because of the meaning it provides, then fix the fragment by connecting it.

If you attach the fragment after a main clause, use Punctuation Rule 1:

Main Clause + Ø + Subordinate Clause.

Here is an example:

We will continue giggling Ø until Rachel notices the toilet paper stuck to her shoe.

If you attach the fragment in front of a main clause, use Punctuation Rule 2:

Subordinate Clause + , + Main Clause.

The fix looks like this:

Even though Fred stuck straws up his nose, Melissa ate her tuna fish sandwich and continued to ignore him.

See also:  Affect vs. effect: how to quickly tell the difference

Fixing Participle Phrase Fragments

One way to fix a participle phrase fragment is to add the necessary main clause. Here is such a fragment:

Sunning themselves on the hot concrete until they heard human feet crashing down the sidewalk.

Notice that you're not sure what species is enjoying the warmth. If you add this information and complete the verb, the problem would be fixed. The correction would look like this:

The little lizards were sunning themselves on the hot concrete until they heard human feet crashing down the sidewalk.

In addition, you can attach a participle phrase fragment after a main clause. Just follow Punctuation Rule 3:

Main Clause + , + Participle Phrase.

Check out this sample:

The majorette marched at the front of the parade, all the while twirling her batons with the speed and ferocity of helicopter blades.

Or you can choose to use Punctuation Rule 4:

Participle Phrase + , + Main Clause.

The participle phrase introduces the main clause, like this:

Sucked down the pipe with a hearty slurp, the dirty bath water drained from the tub.

Fixing Infinitive Phrase Fragments

You can convert an infinitive phrase fragment into a sentence by adding a subject and conjugating the verb.

Take a look at this fragment:

Only to watch in dismay as Dr. Frazier poured her chemistry experiment into the sink.

When you read this fragment, you don't know who is involved. With a couple of minor changes, however, you have the necessary main clause that every sentence requires:

Amber watched in dismay as Dr. Frazier poured her chemistry experiment into the sink.

If you don't like that option, you can attach an infinitive phrase fragment after a main clause. Just follow Punctuation Rule 5:

Main Clause + Ø + Infinitive Phrase.

Here's how it will look:

Jossie enlisted the help of several spiders Ø to catch butterflies for her biology project.

Or you can use Punctuation Rule 6:

Infinitive Phrase + , + Main Clause.

The infinitive phrase introduces the main clause, like this:

To break a piece of plywood with his bare hands, Daniel followed his karate teacher's advice and focused his power.

Fixing Afterthought Fragments

You can fix an afterthought fragment one of two ways. One option is to insert the missing subject and verb so that you have a main clause. This option works best when you have for example and for instance as the transitions beginning the fragment. Take a look at this example:

For example, leaky pens, candy wrappers, dollar bills, and paperclips.

The simple addition of a subject and verb will fix the problem:

For example, the desk drawer contained leaky pens, candy wrappers, dollar bills, and paperclips.

Or you can attach the afterthought fragment to the end of a main clause. This option works best when the fragment begins with except, excluding, including, like and such as. Use Punctuation Rule 7:

Main Clause + , + Afterthought Transition + Ø + Details.

The correction looks like this:

John has many unsafe habits, such as Ø leaving the stove on and teasing mean dogs.

Fixing Lonely Verb Fragments

One missing element—the subject—makes a lonely verb fragment an error. Here is such a fragment:

And dashed through the downpour as raindrops softened the hairspray shell holding her elaborate coif in place.

Who did the dashing? We don't know. The subject might be mentioned in a sentence that came previously, but this word group is a fragment because no subject exists in it. To correct the error, all you need to do is insert a subject, like this:

Betty dashed through the downpour as raindrops softened the hairspray shell holding her elaborate coif in place.

If you want to connect this type of fragment to a main clause in front, use Punctuation Rule 8:

Main Clause + Ø + Lonely Verb Phrase.*

With a heavy sigh, Darryl began counting the words of his essay Ø but knew that all of his effort would prove useless in the long run.

*If the coordinating conjunction beginning the lonely verb phrase connects three or more verbs, you will need to use a comma. See Comma Tip 4.

Fixing Appositive Fragments

You have two options when fixing an appositive fragment. Since an appositive contains a noun which can conveniently become a subject, adding a verb will often fix the problem.

Look at this example:

The unprepared student who was always begging for an extra pencil and a couple sheets of blank paper.

We know who we are talking about; now we need to know what this student did.

The unprepared student who was always begging for an extra pencil and a couple sheets of blank paper screamed.

  1. If you don't like screamed, try cried, sang, protested the accusations, bit his lip, crossed his fingers, flirted with Jasmine, etc.]
  2. Another good option is to connect the appositive to a main clause.
  3. Punctuation Rule 9 says this: No matter where you attach the appositive—at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end—always use comma(s) to separate it.
  4. Here are some samples:
  • A slacker wasting his afternoon in front of the television, Brian opened a bag of potato chips instead of his chemistry textbook.
  • Brian, a slacker wasting his afternoon in front of the television, opened a bag of potato chips instead of his chemistry textbook.
  • On the lawn chair lay Rocket, a dog around whom people need to guard their fingers and food.

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