EDITING 101: 19 – Sentence Fragments…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

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, and only for some writers.

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, 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’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

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.

Susan

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55 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 19 – Sentence Fragments…

  1. I love your series, Susan.
    Fragments. I use them in narrative in scifi and much of my flash fiction. Perhaps it depends on the genres. But with my Princelings series I think I mostly use good grammar, partly because my editor spends a lot of time berating me for not getting it right.
    I’m looking forward to dashes, though – I’m really confused about them. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Jemima! I’m afraid that next week’s post might not be as enlightening as you’d hoped because it focuses on US style, which is different from UK style. 😦 But please do ask any questions and I’ll be more than happy to supplement the material with specifics for your area! I’m “proficient” in US, UK, Australian, and Canadian English. Hahaha!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for pointing out that fragments are perfectly fine when it comes to dialog. Too often a new writer will join a critique group and I notice his/her grammatically perfect dialog. I think they get intimidated by MS words’ warnings. However, such dialog sounds forced and rather wooden.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “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.”

    Some editors, shocking though it seems, are able to tell when sentence fragments are part of the author’s voice (and when they WORK for what they author is trying to say), so they don’t faint, have a conniption, or otherwise react badly to the use of incomplete sentences just because those ARE incomplete sentences.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I’m a stickler for correct grammar, but I admit to loving sentence fragments when used appropriately to build tension or add emphasis in the narrative. Another great lesson, Susan! (Love that fragment 🙂 ) Thanks again for this terrific series, Chris and Susan 💕

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I’m a fragmenter (had to check that was a proper word), think I always have been, and it used to worry me. But after reading the updated thinking am actually feeling good about it.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. This article is another winner. (See, it has worked. I originally just wrote ‘Another Winner! You can teach an old dog new tricks!)

    I had never before mentally differenciated writing and talking as clearly as you described it in the article. Yes we do speak in fragments. And… Yes, we should write in sentences. Wow how easy is that!

    Because of the stream of consciousness technique we grew up with we do tend to write as we speak. But the recipient of speech and literature (carefully choosing words here) are processing information in different parts of the brain – so fragments in writing look more jarring… while in the given example the whole sentence scanned easier.

    I always look forward to your articles because to me writing is an ongoing developmental process and we never know it all. Even if someone argues they do, they have probably forgotten more than they currently know… so a timely reminder is invaluable even to them! So thanks. Your good work is appreciated!

    Liked by 3 people

      • Really Susan, it is the other way round. It is us who should be appreciating your thoughts on the subject. You have the gift of clarity. Which is like the gift of prophecy- but a lot more useful! After all prophecy only tells what is going to happen – whether you like it or not, you can’t change it. Whereas clarity allows you to understand things sufficiently to change them and so overcome your shortcomings!

        Liked by 3 people

  7. English is a constantly changing language, and writers and editors are always learning new things and evolving. My apologies for the strident stance the original article here reflected! Yes, fragments are incorrect when it comes to grammar. You can’t get around those rules. But they are very useful in setting tone and increasing tension, especially in certain genres, and the use of them is inherent in some authors’ voice. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m afraid I think the example you give of where not to use fragments, is simply not right, or at the very least misleading and inhibiting, certainly to those struggling to find their ‘voice’. By changing ‘Shyla walked to the store in the evening. No lights. No cars. Etc.’ as you do, into ‘correct’ narration style – ‘There weren’t any lights or cars—not even the usual patrol car, etc.’ – you strip from it an immediacy it has in the original – an immediacy that stems from its being a clear reflection of the thoughts going at that moment through the girl’s mind. By ‘correcting’ it you’ve interposed a conventional narrator between the girl and the reader. The edge has gone, where the edge added to a sense of something about to happen. Obviously some readers – you yourself being one, I assume – would disagree with what I’ve said. But in my opinion, in any artistic area – painting, writing, architecture, whatever – it’s unwise to pronounce on anything as ‘correct’ or not. I’m sure you’d agree that James Joyce would have felt the same way!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Jeff. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Actually, I agree with you. I wrote this article at least three years ago and my editorial “voice” has changed and matured. Just now, as I re-read the article, I cringed inside because what you said is correct.

      If an author writes consistently in that style, I would not change it. I might point it out (Did you know you write almost entirely in fragments?) and I might make small changes if it was unclear. But the style and voice would stay put.

      Ok, so then, when do I think fragments are incorrect? When they’re not the writer’s inherent style and voice and they pop up here and there without rhyme or reason—in narrative.

      Maybe Chris will let me amend this article and repost it if I scurry about and do it quickly… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hahahaha! No, your editor won’t kill you and I hope they’re more experienced than I was when I wrote this article! If we’re lucky, Chris has reposted amended text because I’m now not so strident about fragments! 😀

      Congratulations on writing in first person. Some people really hate it, for some reason. But I like it—it’s a refreshing change from the normal third person.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Sentence Fragments are useful. Especially in dialogue.- (Intended) Many grammar rules simply break down when it comes to fiction writing. A sentence frag is a perfect example. But, as a Science and Sc-Fi writer, I must admit that I use them in rigid science writing as well. Especially if I’m trying to make something dry sound conversational.

    Liked by 3 people

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