Friday, April 13, 2012

Improve writing: Know about sentence fragments

by Vivian Zabel  

                                                 When a writer doesn't know how to write correct sentences, how to put words together so they can be understood completely, the results are about as productive as a hen setting on cats: chicks don't hatch.

       Let's look at the second in the sentence series, sentence fragments.

    When sentences are not correct, are not finely tuned, the quality and clarity of communication is lost. One way to keep sentences from working is stumbling over sentence fragments. A sentence fragment is a group of words punctuated as a sentence but which lacks a subject, a verb, or both, and which doesn’t contain a complete thought.

      Let’s examine the following paragraph to discover some sentence fragments:

      "Intrepid mountain climbers scaling a tall peak. Climb higher and higher. Up the frozen slopes. When they reach the top. They can look forward to an even more treacherous descent."

     All of the sentence-like-punctuated groups of words in the preceding are fragments except the last. We will keep the paragraph in mind as we look at some ways to correct sentence fragments.

      Sometimes a fragment lacks a subject. Therefore, adding a subject makes the fragment a sentence.

Fragment without a subject: Climb higher and higher.
Sentence: They climb higher and higher.

     Another way to correct a sentence fragment would be to connect the fragment with a sentence, rewording it if necessary.

Fragment without subject or verb: Up the frozen slopes.
Sentence: They climb higher and higher up the frozen slopes.

        At times a fragment lacks a verb, perhaps using a verbal or verb without a helping verb. The way to correct this type sentence fragment would be to add a verb or change a verbal to a verb.

Fragment without a verb: Intrepid mountain climbers scaling a tall peak.
Sentence by adding a helping verb: Intrepid mountain climbers are scaling a tall peak.
Sentence by changing a verbal to a verb: Intrepid mountain climbers scale a tall peak.  (This change allows the sentence to be active voice)

        At times, a fragment has a subject and verb but doesn’t contain a complete thought, a dependent clause. To create a correct sentence, usually the fragment will need to be connected to a sentence.

Fragment lacking a complete thought: When they reach the top.
Sentence: When they reach the top, they can look forward to an even more treacherous descent.

       Now let’s see how the original paragraph filled with fragments can be a correctly formatted paragraph.

        "Intrepid mountain climbers scale a tall peak. They climb higher and higher up the frozen slopes. When they reach the top, they can look forward to an even more treacherous descent."

         A side note, sometimes writers will use an occasional sentence fragment for effect, but only occasionally. The effect is easily recognized by the reader when this practice is used. Otherwise, avoiding the problem is best.

         Finally, once we conquer the problem, we have no more stumbles because of sentences fragments, which could be dangerous on steep, frozen slopes.

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  1. Vivian, I love these writing lessons!


  2. Thanks, Karen. I thought I may as well use some of my old lesson plans for something. *grin*

  3. I'm curious, Vivian, do you have an example of correctly using the occasional fragment? Middle grade writers seem to use this tactic a lot. Sometimes it adds humor or helps to hammer in a point, but mostly it seems extreme. It's often difficult to tell when it is appropriate and when it is overkill!

  4. Middle grade writers shouldn't be using sentence fragments. I taught middle school and high school English classes, and until a person knows and uses the rules correctly consistently, he shouldn't bend or break them. Middle grade writers, unless composition geniuses, are still learning. They shouldn't use fragments at all.

    Sentence fragments, if and when used, are usually found in dialogue. Again, they should be used seldom unless the character talks that way. In narrative, SFs show fear, excitement, hurried thoughts, etc. They certainly shouldn't be used regularly.

    1. I agree! I'm appalled at the lack of quality writing in some of the books my middle grader brings home. Like you said, kids are shouldn't be given so many examples of broken rules before they've learned the rules in the first place!

      Thanks for the examples.

  5. Example of correct use of sentence fragment:

    Robert sped around the corner. His legs cramping from sprinting. The door to freedom lay just ahead. He slammed into the solid surface. Locked.

    Short sentences used together help set the stage, show fast action, leading to the SF for impact.