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.
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)
“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’!
Owner, Adirondack Editing