A sentence fragment is one of those rules that can (and sometimes should) be broken in fiction, though it’s notoriously hard to do well. Beginner authors who don’t know the extent of the rules often break them incorrectly, which is why you should always know the rules before anything else.
So, what is a sentence fragment? Well, first, you must know what a sentence is.
A sentence can be made of many different kinds of words: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, etc. and they can be separated into four basic structures: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.
In essence, though, a sentence is a word group beginning with a capital and ending with some form of punctuation. It requires a subject and a verb (e.g. the man sighs), and it should not be a subordinate clause (beginning with words such as because or who).
Sentence fragments, while sometimes used effectively, always run the risk of confusing or annoying the reader by lacking needed parts.
Examples of Sentence Fragments
- lacks a verb: The sun shining
- lacks a subject: And shines
- is a subordinate clause: because the sun shines
To test your sentences for completeness, simply search for these three things: a finite verb, a subject, and the lack of a subordinate conjunction/relative pronoun.
Identify the Verb
Finite Verbs (to grow):
- he/she/it grows
- they grow
- he/she/they grew
- he/she/they/it will grow
Note: some languages do not require the verb to be within all sentences. English does require this.
Fragment e.g. The sunflowers growing. The garden beautiful in a few weeks.
Complete e.g. The sunflowers are growing. The garden will be beautiful in a few weeks.
Identify the Subject
Fragment e.g. And swim to the far side of the pond.
Complete e.g. And the ducks swim to the far side of the pond.
Note: the subject is not always required. With commands, the subject you is implied.
- e.g. [You] Clean your room.
Make Sure Your Sentence is Not a Subordinate Clause
Note: Keep in mind that compound sentences may be arranged starting with the subordinate clause. This rule mainly applies to simple sentences.
Fragment e.g. When Marco’s book was published.
Complete 1 e.g. Marco’s book was published.
Complete 2 e.g. When Marco’s book was published, he attended three book signings within the month.
Note: Questions beginning with how, what, when, where, why, which, who, whom, and whose are not sentence fragments. This is because the question word becomes the subject, therefore making it complete.
- e.g. Why did this happen?
- e.g. Who was at the door?
How to Revise Sentence Fragments
Revising sentences fragments can be done one of two ways depending on the importance of the information in the fragment.
1: Rewrite as a complete sentence
Fragment e.g. Noah needed four different sources for his project. Found them all at the library.
Complete e.g. Noah needed four different sources for his project. He found them all at the library.
2: Incorporate the fragment into the appropriate main clause.
Fragment e.g. The plants came back to life. After a good watering.
Complete e.g. The plants, after a good watering, came back to life.
What Sentence Fragments are Allowed
There is accepted use of sentence fragments within fiction, but you should be aware of usage. Like everything else, over usage, even accepted over usage, is not a good thing. Accepted use can include exclamations, questions and answers, and commands.
- e.g. Oh my God!
- e.g. What?
- e.g. Q: Where to?
- e.g. A: To Vancouver.
- e.g. Go away!
- e.g. Wash the dishes.
For further information, see my other Grammar articles (coming soon).
Aaron, J.E. & Morrison, A. The Little, Brown Compact Handbook, 5th Canadian ed. Pearson, 2013, chap 5