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, and only for some writers.
Which half? The narrative half. <— Aha! A sentence fragment. <— Another one! Ni! I said it again! 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)
“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, unless it’s the writer’s inherent style and/or voice, writing should be grammatically correct. That means no fragments.
For example, if this was a writer’s typical style, then I’d leave it, despite my alert below:
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.
If fragments are not the normal style/voice of a particular writer and this paragraph suddenly popped up out of the blue, triggering an Emergency Editorial System alert, then it would need to be changed. Let’s try it this way:
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.
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 would not be grammatically appropriate for a writer whose style is not filled with fragments.
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, even when it’s not their style. 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 grammatically correct, but it can add suspense and tension to some genres. The example above would fit well into a crime story, but probably not a romance. 🙂
Have you noticed the “sentence fragment” tag when spell checking your work? What did you do about it?
Next week we’ll discuss ‘Dashes’
This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.
I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.
If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.