Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (17 Sentence Fragments)

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Sentence Fragments

Good morning editing students! Today we’re going to tackle sentence fragments, which is something copy editors frequently tag as being a knotty issue in writing. The problem is, they’re only problematic half of the time.

Which half? The narrative half. <— Aha! A sentence fragment. <— Another one! Ni! I said it again! Ni! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIV4poUZAQo, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_who_say_Ni)

Ahem. And now for something completely different.

So, what is a sentence fragment and when shouldn’t you use it? A sentence fragment is a group of words used as a sentence but missing some of the parts of a sentence. Way back in school, you may remember learning that a sentence needs three parts: a noun, a verb, and a subject. “The ape ate bananas.” A sentence can have more parts than that—“The chubby ape ate many bananas yesterday.”—but those three parts are the basics. As you can see in the examples above, the groups of words “a sentence fragment” or “the narrative half” have no verb. Generally, the key to realizing something is a fragment is a missing verb.

The reason sentence fragments are used so commonly is because people tend to speak in fragments. Listen to yourself speaking to others, and to their responses, and you’ll notice speech is filled with fragments. And that is exactly when it is ok to use them.

Hey, Mike! What’s up?”

Nothing. Same as yesterday.” (fragments)

Never anything different, eh?” (fragment)

Nope.”
“Get together next week?” (fragment)

I guess. Let me see what Cheryl says.” (first is fragment)

Fragments in dialogue are all right. Non-dialogue speech is called narrative—the descriptive or storytelling parts of writing. In narrative, writing should be grammatically correct. That means no fragments. Example:

Shyla walked to the store in the evening. No lights. No cars. Not even the usual patrol car. She glanced back over her shoulder. Nobody.

Aaack! This is a test of the Emergency Editorial System. This is only a test. Had this been an actual emergency, your editor would have fainted. Let’s try it this way.

Shyla walked to the store in the evening. There weren’t any lights or cars—not even the usual patrol car. She glanced back over her shoulder. Nobody was visible.

Do you see? These are whole sentences, including verbs. The one fragment, “not even the usual patrol car,” is now connected to the sentence with an em dash. Since it’s not standing alone, it’s ok.

Microsoft Word’s spell check system can alert you to the use of fragments. When you run a spell check, it will highlight fragments. The problem is, many times there are so many of them in dialogue that writers get used to saying, “Ignore this,” and ignore it in narrative, too. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell Word to only highlight narrative fragments.

Some authors deliberately write in fragments, even when in narrative sections. It isn’t correct, however. Have you noticed the “sentence fragment” tag when spell checking your work? What did you do about it?

We’re Dun for today, so keep on Writin’!

Susan

Susan Uttendorfsky

Owner, Adirondack Editing

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48 thoughts on “Dun Writin’—Now Whut? A series by Susan Uttendorfsky – Owner of Adirondack Editing – (17 Sentence Fragments)

  1. Shyla walked to the story in the evening. There weren’t any lights or cars—not even the usual patrol car. She glanced back over her shoulder. Nobody was visible. She hadn’t really expected anyone to be visible. That’s just the way it is when you walk to stories.

    ;>
    MJM

    Liked by 1 person

        • No, no–say you did it on purpose to a) see if we are awake, and b) make us feel better (or convince us that everyone needs an editor) by showing that things can always slip past us!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Susan and some of you have heard this before, but it’s my favorite, so I’ll repeat it. :> It shows the REAL value of an good editor!

            A major medical journal published a major research article on secondhand smoke and heart disease. It was written by some of the biggest heavy-hitting luminaries in the field, was fully peer-reviewed, and was even put online for many many people to read and give input on before finally being fully published.

            In THE VERY FIRST SENTENCE of the fully published paper, right at the top of the opening formal Abstract, the authors headlined the need to address the problem of “workplace and pubic smoking.”

            I’ve had SOOOO much fun poking at that typo over the past couple of years. Yeah, it’s a “cheap shot,” but since I’m “the opposition” to the guys who wrote it and they get well over a hundred times my level of income for their efforts (and then have the gall to deride me for getting ANY income from mine at all!), I can’t say I feel too guilty.

            I’ll probably be telling that story while sitting next to the fireplace when I’m 99 years old! (If I’m lucky! LOL!)

            :>
            Michael

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  2. Your posts have been helping me in my work, as I have a checklist to rate the books I read and leave comments for authors when necessary. Sentence fragments was one of those I recently did. I appreciate these useful articles.

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  3. Thanks for this wonderful article. I enjoy your posts and humor 🙂 . I use sentence fragments as well, and my spell check freaks out most of the time. I think sentence fragments are a good tool to build mystery, suspense or a familiar, closer environment when someone is talking. The key is to use them well and sparingly, in my opinion.

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  4. You catch me 80% through working my editor’s comments for my new book. And I agree with Rebecca and Ali! Fragments can add pizazz. Even more so when your protagonist is the narrator of the book. He’s entitled to narrate in sentence fragments – so I think, anyway.

    My editor also hates my dangling participles. Trouble is, I use them when two things are happening at once. If they are consecutive, I’ll agree with her, but the plane landing on the river, spraying water from the floats on its wingtips is a coincident action. As is my protagonist walking and thinking. Grrr. My editor is wonderful. We just don’t always agree 🙂

    Thank you for allowing me to let off steam. She’s probably right, of course.

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  5. But sometimes, the narrative is actually the thought processes of the character, (at least, they are in my books!) so what is correct then?

    Yes, I do get quite a few fragment warnings from Microsoft. Sometimes I revise, sometimes I ignore. Sometimes, rules are meant to be broken…provided you know the correct way to write in the first place, that is!

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    • Yes, Ali, rules are definitely made to be broken—thoughtfully and deliberately. A good point to Rebecca’s comment, too.

      If the narrative is the thought processes of the character, then I would look at that as interior narrative/monologue and would say fragments were appropriate. If the narrative is by an outside narrator, then I would encourage proper English (mostly). 🙂

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  6. I agree with Lorinda; you probably wanted to write subject/verb/object, the latter being optional. The subject (and object) are both nouns, or noun phrases. Another tiny quibble: the spell checker doesn’t check grammar, that’s the grammar checker (although you can set the grammar checker to run with the spell checker).
    But please pardon these pedantic musings, they shouldn’t distract from an otherwise very informative post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  7. As an editor I will let some fragmented sentences slip past the censor, even in narrative. The occasional piece of imperfect grammar actually helps keep the author’s unique voice in a fiction manuscript, and if over zealous editors stifle authors’ voices then books are in danger of becoming Word grammar-checked clones. However, if an author overuses the fragmented sentence it loses its impact.

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  8. I’d argue that fragments in narrative may be a powerful and useful device. In the example above, if the story is a gritty mystery, the first version, with fragments, reads better. And if your narrator is a first-person narrator, all bets are off.

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    • I totally agree! I work in first person–I write thrillers and gritty mysteries– and often use fragments. They are powerful and they work! For instance, Blood. Blood everywhere.

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    • I agree with you, Rebecca! Personally, I think the Shyla passage has more punch and immediacy with the fragments. The point is that the author should know he/she is using fragments – do it deliberately for effect. If you simply use fragments because you’re ignorant and don’t know better, then you should be told of that fact and learn.
      In regard to the spell checker comment below, you have to activate the grammar checker in Word for it to alert you to fragments or overly long sentences. I turned most of that off a long time ago.. they give you all kinds of goofy suggestions for rewrites. I can check my own grammar a lot better and without being distracted.

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      • I gave up on the grammar-checker in Word when it kept insisting I needed to chance “advise” to “advice.” I knew I was right, but even double-checked. Yeah, Word had the wrong part of speech. I’ve seen other places where the grammar checker wanted to make things wrong.

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  9. Just a small quibble – you say a sentence has “a noun, a verb and a subject.” I think you mean that a sentence has a subject, a verb, and an object, although you don’t have to have an object to have a complete sentence. “The ape ate heartily” is just as complete as “The ape ate bananas heartily.” Lots of verbs are intransitive and don’t take objects, as, e.g., The men walked slowly up the hill. Or, He lay down by the fire.

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