Common Writing 'Mistakes' – Part 2: Sentence fragments

This article is the second of a three part series where we look at common flaws in the submissions we receive – it's important to know the rules before you break them. If you missed it, part 1 was on the misuse of speech marks. Next up we cast a critical eye on sentence fragments.

What goes wrong?

Let’s keep this simple, for a moment. A fragment is part of a sentence, but not a full sentence. A complete sentence has, at least, a noun (acting as the ‘subject’) and a verb (used as the ‘predicate’, to tell us more about the ‘subject’; for example, what it is or what it does).

Examples of real sentences:

  1. Sheila looks round for more interested buyers.

  2. Upon the canvas, he painted his masterpiece.

Look at example 2 here. ‘He painted his masterpiece’ is an example of the independent clause. It would stand alone as a sentence, as it has a subject and a predicate. The first part of the sentence, ‘upon the canvas’, does not. Let’s call this a dependent clause. It should not be written on its own as a sentence but should always be attached to an independent clause, as it is here.

And what about these?

A: She fell.
B: Having the best football.
C: To rest his head.
D: As there is trouble.

A is a sentence; an independent clause. B-D would be fragments if they appeared alone.

B: Having the best football (participle phrase fragment).
C: To rest his head (infinitive phrase fragment).
D: As there is trouble (subordinate clause fragment).

For more information on these kinds of fragments, see the end of this article.

Why is it bad?

If you write in fragments, you write incomplete thoughts which are often awkward to read. They can make sense if read a certain way, but spoil the continuity for the reader and the reading experience in general. It might seem like splitting hairs to some writers, but this is often seen as erroneous, cumbersome and uneducated to readers. And it just isn’t right! That’s the English teacher in me speaking...

Is it ever okay?

Of course, there are always exceptions in which fragments can be used.

  1. In dialogue: When people speak they often use fragments, so you can add a degree of realism by having a character talk in a more realistic, ungrammatical way. ‘You say what? Yeah, right. Nobody did. Nuh. Not even there.’

  2. Increase tension: When the stress in a paragraph grows, using fragments can add to the tension and increase the pace. ‘She didn’t look behind her. Not even when she heard a branch crack close by. She would look forward at all times. Until the very end.’

  3. Stylistic choice: Be careful with this one. Good stylistic decisions can see fragments being used exceptionally well. However, bad fragments cannot use the excuse of ‘stylistic choice’ with any conviction. The key is, recognise what a fragment actually is, use it knowingly on some occasions and play around with the theme, listening to advice on what does and doesn’t sound good.  

In all these cases, be careful and use fragments sparingly.

That’s the basics of sentence fragments but if you want more detailed info, read on!

More in depth: Types of fragments

Participle phrase fragment:

A participle is a verb, ending in ‘ing’ or ‘ed’.

For example: Having the best football / Entered the stadium

These are fragments, as they stand. See how different the appear when they are given a subject and a predicate?

Archie loves having the best football in class / Josephine entered the stadium proudly.

Infinitive phrase fragment:

An infinitive is NOT a verb, but is written in two words: to + verb

For example: to eat the chicken/ to go down on one knee/ to understand what was said

To be written in a complete sentence, there still must be a subject and a predicate, such as, Teresa hoped to understand what was said, but it was turning into a complicated talk.’

Subordinate clause fragment:

This is a tricky one. It also goes by the name ‘dependent clause’. I said, above, that a full and complete sentence must have a subject and a predicate. The example below has, yet it is a fragment.

D: As there is trouble.

‘There is trouble’ would be a complete sentence on its own. In the sentence above, however, one little word changes it to a fragment: As.

There is a list of subordinate conjunctions and relative pronouns: Words that can be placed before a ‘complete’ sentence to morph it into an incomplete sentence which requires more information.

Take the sentence, ‘Her little boy wanted the green buggy’.

How different would that be if it read, If her little boy wanted the green buggy?’

The fragment above would be incorrect. If her little boy wanted the green buggy then something else would need to happen. For example,

If her little boy wanted the green buggy then he would have to ask for it very nicely indeed.’

Since the monkey ate the nuts. – fragment
Nobody threw anything away since the monkey ate the nuts. – sentence
Since the monkey ate the nuts, nobody threw anything away. – sentence

Here is a list of subordinate conjunctions and relative pronouns. If you see them at the start of a sentence or clause, make sure the ‘thought’ is completed (as I have done here!).

Subordinate conjunctions:

After, although, as, because, before, even if, even though, if, in order that, once, provided that, rather than, since, so that, than, that, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, whereas, wherever, whether, while, why.

Relative pronouns:

That, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whose, whomever.

Appositives and verb phrases

These are two further ways that a fragment may be written (but are not commonly used by our writers).

Appositives are alternatives to a noun, which can add colour to our sentence but don’t add to the competency of your sentence by providing a predicate verb.

For example, ‘Barney, that cute but wayward little kitten’.

Also, verb phrases are not enough on their own. Although every good sentence requires a verb, verb phrases tend to cause problems when they are not attached to a subject. There may be a noun in the sentence, but if that noun is not the subject doing the verb then it’s ineffectual.

For example ‘washed down the fruit salad with a tall glass of wine while answering the door’.