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
Over the next hill! A tree with wings! On DVD December 19!
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.
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.
No, Sir Fragalot, it would be “Squiggly hurried onward.” “Squiggly” is the subject; he’s the one hurrying.
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.
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.]
That Squiggly hurried.
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.
Mignon Fogarty is the author of seven books, including Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
* 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!”