Last week we began the series of the 7 Deadly Sins of Grammar with the run-on sentence. This week we will talk about its opposite, the dreaded fragment.
By the way, I received a comment about my inconsistent hyphenation of the word run-on (run on). While it may have looked inconsistent, there was a method to my madness. It was actually not inconsistent at all. I hyphenated run-on when it was a modifier preceding the word sentence. If I used run on as a noun without the word sentence after it, I didn’t use a hyphen. I was following the standard of hyphenating compound adjectives that precede the noun they modify. I suppose I could have hyphenated run on all the time, but I saw no reason. Here is another example: I ordered a well-done steak. I like my steak well done. And another: He has a three-year-son. His son is three years old.
Back to the dreaded fragment (which is a fragment itself). While a run-on sentence is too much information, a fragment is not enough. A run-on sentence is two (usually) sentences that are run together without appropriate punctuation to separate them. They are usually strung together with a comma rather than a period or semicolon (or the addition of a conjunction).
A fragment, on the other hand, is less than a sentence. It is not a complete thought. First, what is a sentence, anyway. What do you need to have a complete sentence? A subject and a verb usually does the trick. Of course, sentences usually contain more than two words, but the right two words will do: a subject and a verb:
Before we start writing a nursery school primer here, let’s continue. You can actually have a complete sentence with just one word–a verb–if it is a command. In a command the subject, which is always you, is understood if it isn’t actually there. So when you say to your dog, Sit!–that is a sentence: You sit.
Fragments are usually longer than one or two words, however, and often can look like sentences. But before we go into that . . .
I use fragments all the time. I use them in my blog posts. I use them in my books. You will see fragments in advertisements. Fragments have a use. Conversely, run ons don’t. Fragments are often used for effect:
She was afraid. She made herself so small she almost disappeared in the closet. There it was again. That horrible screaming.
Okay, I wrote that off the cuff, but there it is–those last three words do not a sentence make. But you know that the author used it for effect and probably knows the difference between a sentence and a fragment.
Here is another short passage with a fragment or two:
I have three dogs. First, a poodle. My poodle is named Mollie, and she is three years old. My little brother named her Mollie. Although she is a boy dog.
Yes, I wrote that one off the cuff too. That one might be part of a paragraph or an essay by an elementary-school student. There are two fragments, and we know they are not intentional, or for effect:
First, a poodle is not a sentence. There is no verb.
Although she is a boy dog is not a sentence either. “But is has a subject and a verb!” my student says. Yes, it does indeed. She is the subject and is is the verb. However, the group of words is not a complete thought. What about although she is a boy dog? Something else is needed for that group of words, which does have a subject and a verb, to make sense. In this case, it could simply be the sentence before it. If the writer had not put that period after Mollie and had not capitalized Although, it would have been correct.
Although she is a boy dog is called a subordinate (or dependent) clause. A clause is a group of words that has both a subject and a verb. An independent clause is a complete sentence. However, a subordinate clause isn’t and cannot stand on its own. It needs an independent clause to join with to make a sentence. The use of a subordinate clause as a sentence is probably the most common use of incorrect fragments–incorrect meaning, not intentional and not used for effect.
Many students come to my classroom believing they cannot begin a sentence with the word because. They have been told this in elementary school so that they wouldn’t run into the problem of not finishing the thought and producing a fragment:
Because the sky is gray. Fragment.
Because the sky is gray, I will take my umbrella with me today. Sentence.
Notice that we added a complete sentence (independent clause) to the subordinate clause: I will take my umbrella with me today.
Some other words that begin subordinate clauses and might result in a fragment are although, since, until, whenever, wherever, after, before, and while.
In conclusion, some fragments (group of words that do not make a complete sentence) are effective when writing a book, blog post, advertisement, etc. However,
1. I can’t think of when a run on would be acceptable, although many novelists use them.
2. I would not, and would not recommend, ever using a fragment for effect in a business letter, cover letter, college application, or any formal writing.
As you know, The Best Grammar Workbook Ever is now available. If you received a PDF copy from me to review, please post your review on Amazon. If you have purchased the book, an Amazon review is always appreciated 🙂
I will be launching the workbook on Friday, May 15, at 7 p.m. at Petaluma Copperfields. Please join me for this event if you live locally! There will be chocolate cake, prizes, and humor! Help me fill the seats! Bring your friends. Support your indie bookstore and support your indie publisher!