When is a sentence a sentence? Part 2

Part 2: The sentence fragment

The topic in this post is related to the previous post, When is a sentence a sentence? Part 1: Comma Splices and Run-on Sentences.

While comma splices and run-on sentences are more than a sentence, a sentence fragment is less than a sentence; it is part of a sentence that is presented as if it were a complete sentence (LeTourneau 490).

            In the still of the night.

This word group does not have both a subject and a verb, two constituents necessary for a grammatically complete sentence.

As discussed in the previous post, the failure to identify a sentence is a serious error in Standard English, the English taught in schools and used in the public spheres (Weaver). Fragments appear as item #20 on the list of the Top Twenty, joining runs-ons (#15) and comma splices (#16).

However, recognizing a sentence unit depends on your outlook and purpose.

Are you writing for formal occasions, such as for school, business, government, or the professions–the public spheres using Standard English?

Or, are you writing for creative expression, whether fiction or nonfiction?

Your answer determines the options you’re likely to choose.

In formal writing, we need to recognize the sentence unit. A classic definition of a sentence is a sentence consists of a subject and a verb and gives a sense of completeness—it makes sense by itself.

As reviewed in the previous post, the first task is to recognize sentenced patterns – the various ways that subjects and verbs (or predicates) combine to make a clause. Because the clause is complete, because it can stand by itself, it is called an independent clause.

The second task is to understand the boundaries of a sentence. It is not enough to say that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period or other end punctuation mark (question mark or exclamation point).

For instance, look at the two clauses below. Which is a sentence?

  1. The bell rings.
  2. When the bell rings.

The sentence in a. is complete by itself, or an independent clause.  In b., the clause cannot stand alone by itself: it is a dependent (or subordinate) clause because it is dependent on the independent (or main) clause of the sentence.

Joseph Blumenthal (English 3200) likens a fragment to a handle broken off a cup: a fragment is a word group broken off a sentence. Fragments occur when you split off a clause or phrase from the beginning or end of a sentence.

Because it is dependent on the main clause of the sentence, the fragment must be grammatically attached to it.

In the example above, the dependent clause is an adverb clause modifying the verb starts in the main clause; it tells when the class begins:

The class starts when the bell rings.

A sentence ends only when the last grammatically connected idea has been expressed. If you close a sentence before you have included a grammatically connected word group, you produce a sentence fragment.

Fragments occur in writing (and in speech) when we state an idea, and then we continue thinking. We will add a thought or detail, often qualifying the initial idea.

I went walking. In the still of the night.

In formal writing, most fragments are the result of a punctuation error, punctuating a phrase or a dependent clause as a sentence – and not because of errors in syntax, which are more serious.

Fragment caused by punctuation errors can be corrected by attaching the sentence to the main clause.

I went walking in the still of the night.

In “Editing for Sentence Fragments,” Lunsford writes that a group of words must meet three criteria to form a complete sentence. For the first two criteria, she reiterates the earlier tests discussed, that a sentence must have a subject and a verb (and not just a verbal). Her third criteria is that a sentence (unless it is a question) must have at least one clause that does not begin with a subordinating word, such as when, (which begin subordinate clauses).

In speech, we often use fragments since we usually don’t need to restate the information.

Why are you late?

Because I missed the bus.

Rather than:  I’m late because I missed the bus.

In creative or narrative writing, fragments are often used for various purposes, such as to echo the rhythms of speech.

As grammar and composition expert Richard Nordquist says, avoiding fragments in formal writing makes good sense, but “[i]n both fiction and nonfiction, the sentence fragment may be used deliberately to create a variety of powerful effects.”

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