Sentence Fragments: When to Use and When Not to?

Look at the two sentence fragments.

Our team lost all close matches this year. Because we choked at crucial moments.

Our team lost all close matches this year. All of them.

(All examples of sentence fragments in the post have been highlighted in magenta font.)

The first will be viewed an error, but the second an effective use.

In this post, we’ll learn when sentence fragments are bad and when they can be better than even a complete sentence in its place. All this with lots of examples (this is a fragment, BTW).

More resources on sentence fragments:

What is a sentence fragment?

A sentence fragment is a group of words punctuated as a sentence, even though it’s not a sentence. Examples:

Dr Johnson ate a big meal. And went to work afterward.

There is a remedy for everything. Except death.

A word of caution though. Don’t take his words as gospel truth.

To quote from The Least You Should Know About English: Writing Skills by Paige Wilson and Teresa Glazier: “Fragments don’t make complete statements, and run-ons make too many complete statements without punctuating between them.” But unlike run-on sentences, which are rarely considered appropriate, sentence fragments are sometimes desirable.

Fragments are rarely written in isolation though. As is the case in above examples, most write them in context while continuing a thought from the preceding sentence (first two examples) – and occasionally to the succeeding sentence (third example). If you ask the same person to write above fragments as standalone sentence, they’ll most likely write a complete sentence, and not a fragment.

Because fragments are used as sentences even though they’re not, they’re often frowned upon by sticklers of grammar rules, especially when used in academic or other formal writing. But a fragment used judiciously can be effective, sometimes more than a sentence in its place. More on this in the next section.

Fragments are far more common in spoken English

Fragments are common in spoken English, where people can understand the discourse even if you omit parts of a sentence. That’s because plenty of meaning in speech is carried by body language and intonation. And to help matters, speech, being informal, is more accommodative of fragments.

Fragments though work relatively less in writing owing to absence of body language, vocal cues, and formal nature of writing. But they’re not absent. Context provided by surrounding sentences helps readers understand fragments even with few words missing.

These aren’t sentence fragments

These look like fragments as they seem to be without a subject:

Stop.

Move aside.

Pass the book.

But they’re not. The above three are imperative sentences, with you as the implied subject. They actually are:

You stop.

You move aside.

You pass the book.

But these are

On the other hand, these look like sentences as they seem to have both subject and verb:

We offered.

I felt.

But they’re not. They’re fragments.

Subject and verb alone aren’t sufficient to make a group of words a sentence. It also should represent a complete idea. Whereas dependent clauses clearly don’t represent a complete idea, the above two also don’t: We offered what? I felt what?

These two would be sentences though:

We offered a great deal. [Offer is a transitive verb, and hence it required an object. It now has one.]

I felt numb. [Feel here is a linking verb, much like the be verb, and hence it required a subject complement. It now has one.]

When to use sentence fragments? [6 cases]

Teachers often squirm at fragments, and not without a reason. They’re often used inappropriately, like in these sentences.

Our team lost all close matches this year. Because we choked at crucial moments.

He left. For no reason at all.

But when used thoughtfully and in moderation, sentence fragments can be used to bring out an effect: They can be an effective tool for emphasis and breeziness. Little wonder, they’re popular with professional writers, even though they are grammatically imperfect. But, in words of Stephen King from his book On Writing, language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.

A different fragment in the above examples can turn an error into an effective fragment.

Our team lost all close matches this year. All of them.

He left. When?

We compared a bad fragment with a good fragment. Let’s compare good fragments with sentences.

The proposed tax raise doesn’t make economic sense, nor does it make political sense.

The proposed tax raise doesn’t make economic sense. Nor political sense.

Never text or drop an email when you are angry. This is so true.

Never text or drop an email when you are angry. So true.

To me, ‘imperfect’ fragments sound at least as good as ‘perfect’ sentences.

Pat Belanoff et al. in The Right Handbook suggest following rule-of-thumb (and not hard and fast prescription) for acceptable fragments:

  • The fragment expresses an idea that seems in context important enough to merit its own sentence.
  • A reader can easily understand the fragment by filling in the missing words.

Here are few acceptable – even effective – usages of fragments. Most of these fragments fulfil the above two conditions. Especially, note that the fragment emphasizes or stands out an important idea (first bullet above).

1. Fragment as answer to question

Fragments are commonly used in writing when answering questions, especially when answers are short. Examples:

Do you agree with our stand? Totally. [Compare Totally with a sentence in its place, I totally agree with your stand. When read with the previous sentence, doesn’t it look repetitive? A fragment here works better than a sentence in its place.]

Did you walk the dog today? Absolutely.

How is the dessert? Awesome.

Has anyone survived without water for more than a week? Never.

Are you attending today’s event? Of course.

Will he be able to understand which of the five is yours? No.

Can you move the adjectival around in a sentence? Sometimes.

Do we know anything about the intruder? Yes, a lot.

When did he leave? After John spoke.

When did this happen? While you were away for lunch.

What are you doing? Nothing much.

How long you’ve been living here? Since 1996.

Have you sat with friends for a frugal meal or drink after a long time at a spartan place? You would have still enjoyed it. And what about a royal meal with people you don’t want to talk to? Quite the opposite.

2. Fragment as question

We just saw that fragments can be used to answer questions. But they can also be used to ask questions.

We’ve won the tournament. What next?

You mean to say I can’t do that. Why not?

He is not coming. Why?

Tortoise walked slowly, yet it beat the hare to finish. How? By walking slowly but steadily. [The two fragments and the sentence could’ve been written as one: Tortoise walked slowly, yet it beat the hare to finish by walking slowly but steadily. But it’s now devoid of ups and downs. It lacks the breeziness that How provided.]

I’ve been left out of the team for no apparent reason. Why me?

We’ve been driving for three hours now. What about a stop at the next service area?

Last few weeks have been quite hectic. How about going on a weekend getaway?

How to reconcile with whom you disagree? Washington Post [It’s a fragment because it doesn’t contain a finite verb. Such fragments are commonly used in titles. Three more examples follow.]

What to cook this weekend? The New York Times

How and when to watch the solar eclipse on Thursday? The Guardian

When to use sentence fragments? [The is the title of this section of the post.]

Conclusion? Beware of success. Source: Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. [Sometimes, non-question words can start a question fragment. Conclusion? is same as What’s the conclusion?]

How was the movie? Thrilling? Boring? Pass?

What do you think is the subject in the first example? Is it you? Or something else?

I’m going out. Anyone interested in coffee?

Remember the formula?

3. Non-question how and what fragment to express emotion or surprise

Fragments starting with how and what can be used in non-interrogative sense to express surprise or emotion, and hence may be accompanied by an exclamation mark. Other exclamations too can be valid use of sentence fragments (last two examples).

The ball landed on the top tier of the stadium. What a shot!

At this age, he is regular at most marathons. What an incredible person!

Despite intelligence reports, the police failed to prevent the terrorist attack. What a shame!

Is that the solution to this problem? How easy!

How was the movie? Excellent!

You won the lottery. Wow!

4. Fragment for repetition

Fragments are sometimes used to repeat the previous sentence, obviating the need to write the sentence again. The fragment, in such use, emphasizes the repeated word. Examples:

You’re responsible for the mess. You.

I am not going to meet him again. Never.

Everyone faces difficulties in life. Everyone.

Government was, in this era, part of the problem. A big part. The New York Times

By comparison, this early evolutionary step looks, at first, to be rather simple. It is a circuit. A gene circuit. Source: Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To

5. Fragment for negation

Fragments can also be used to express contrast with the preceding sentence. Examples:

Fighting only degrades relationships. Never improves it.

In its role as joining two parts of a sentence, it functions as a preposition. Not as a conjunction.

In the first three sentences, however moves around in the sentence along with commas. But not in the fourth.

6. Fragment to avoid redundancy

Fragments can, in general, be used when you want to avoid repetitive words. This category of fragments overlaps with few other categories we just saw as most fragments essentially cut down repetitive words. Examples:

We want to get into a good college. Then to get a well-paying job. To buy shiny toys. To settle down.

Most animals teach only the most essential skills – finding food and escaping predators – to their young ones. Nothing superfluous there.

When not to use sentence fragments? [4 cases]

In the last section, we saw how fragments can be used effectively. But there is reason why fragments aren’t always welcome.

Fragments generally stand out as error when you divide ideas that shouldn’t be. The Right Handbook, conversely, mentions rule-of-thumb for bad fragments:

  • ‘The fragment expresses an idea which in the context seems inappropriately stressed by being in a separate sentence.’
  • It can be joined to the previous sentence with just a comma or by nothing.

Acceptable fragments, in contrast, can rarely be joined to the previous sentence similarly. For example, this fragment, created by separating a dependent clause from the sentence, stands out oddly.

Asiatic lions are found in just one country, India. Whereas African lions are found in more than twenty-five countries in Africa.

It would read better if we combine the two.

Asiatic lions are found in just one country, India, whereas African lions are found in more than twenty-five countries in Africa.

Here are few types of fragments that generally don’t work, along with their fix. Note that such fragment errors can be made in many ways, most common of which are covered here. Also, note that such fragments can be corrected in more than one way. The fixes here are the most common and straightforward.

1. Dependent clause fragments

A dependent clause fragment results when you write a dependent clause as a sentence. (To draw out the difference between dependent clause and fragment, all dependent clauses are fragments, but not all fragments are dependent clauses. In other words, a dependent clause is a subset of fragments.) Starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, and or is widely accepted, but not with marker words that start dependent clauses. Examples:

I’m focused on picking few skills. Even if I’ve to compromise on my living standard because of modest salary.

Money without skill won’t keep the next generation meaningfully engaged. Which can lead to problems of its own.

You can fix such fragment errors by combining the dependent clause to the preceding or following sentence, whichever fits in with the meaning. The above fragments can be corrected as follows:

I’m focused on picking few skills even if I’ve to compromise on my living standard because of modest salary. [Adverb clause combined with the previous sentence]

Money without skill won’t keep them meaningfully engaged, which can lead to problems of its own. [Relative clause combined with the previous sentence]

Note that following dependent clauses, used as fragments earlier in the post, work because they’re answers to questions. Also note that they can’t be joined to the preceding sentence.

When did he leave? After John spoke.

When did this happen? While you were away for lunch.

2. Missing-subject fragments

This type of fragment results when subject is omitted in the mistaken belief that the subject from the previous sentence carries on to the fragment as well. Examples:

They made plans for a weekend getaway. But ended up staying at home.

Susan was a key researcher and data collector for this presentation. Furthermore, made significant contribution to flow and design of the presentation.

Such errors can be corrected either by combining the fragment with the preceding or succeeding sentence or by converting the fragment into a separate sentence by plugging in the missing subject.

They made plans for a weekend getaway but ended up staying at home.

Susan was a key researcher and data collector for this presentation. Furthermore, she made significant contribution to flow and design of the presentation.

3. Phrase fragments

We just saw fragments arising out of missing subjects. Sometimes, a fragment may result from a missing verb (fully or partly). And sometimes from a missing verb (fully or partly) and subject. Most such fragments are essentially phrases, such as participial phrase, infinitive phrase, noun phrase, and absolute phrase. Examples:

The coach takes the team through pre-match warm-up and team song. A routine that has yielded rich dividends so far. [Noun phrase as fragment/ Subject and verb missing]

I often schedule most of my meetings in the second half of Monday. To get similar kind of work done in one go. [Infinitive phrase as fragment/ Subject and part of verb missing]

Tom was a harried person of late. Regularly reviewing our progress against the targets, which frankly seemed unrealistic, and answering to the top management. [Participial phrase as fragment/ Subject and part of verb missing. Earlier we discussed that most fragments – good or bad – are written in continuation of the previous sentence. But errors like in this example can also happen when you start a long sentence but forget to close it.]

The bike raced along the beach. Its tyres leaving a trail on sand and its engine competing with the roar of the wave. [Absolute phrase as fragment/ Part of verb missing]

Such errors can be corrected by either combining the fragment with the preceding or succeeding sentence or by converting the fragment into a separate sentence by plugging in the missing elements. Here are the corrected versions of above fragments.

The coach takes the team through pre-match warm-up and team song, a routine that has yielded rich dividends so far. [The noun phrase here functions as an appositive]

I often schedule most of my meetings in the second half of Monday to get similar kind of work done in one go.

Tom was a harried person of late, regularly reviewing our progress against the targets, which frankly seemed unrealistic, and answering to the top management.

The bike raced along the beach, its tyres leaving a trail on sand and its engine competing with the roar of the wave.

4. Details fragments

This type of fragment results while adding details using words such as for example, for instance, such as, including, especially, among them, and so on. Examples:

Small contributions by many can accomplish mammoth tasks. Such as cleaning an entire city.

If a situation can’t be remedied, be patient and endure it. For example, financial loss, breakup, illness, and death where things are beyond your control.

Before iPhone, BlackBerry was the preferred smartphone. Especially for working professionals.

You can correct such errors by combining them with the preceding sentence or by rewriting the second sentence.

Small contributions by many can accomplish mammoth tasks, such as cleaning an entire city.

If a situation can’t be remedied, be patient and endure it. For example, learn to accept events such as financial loss, breakup, illness, and death where things are beyond your control. [Note that this was a bad fragment, even though it couldn’t be joined to the preceding sentence by just a comma or nothing. In other words, this fragment doesn’t follow condition #3 of acceptable fragments we saw earlier. As mentioned earlier, the three are general guidelines, and not hard and fast prescriptions.]

Before iPhone, BlackBerry was the preferred smartphone, especially for working professionals.

How to identify a sentence fragment?

Even if you know what’s a sentence fragment, you may not be able to spot all of them in your writing through regular reading. That’s because most sentence fragments are seamlessly woven into preceding or succeeding sentence without interrupting meaning. And because we read for meaning, we’re likely to miss them. (That’s why we rarely notice fragments while reading a book.)

To detect fragments, therefore, read sentence by sentence. An even more effective way experts suggest is to read backwards, which will break your natural tendency to read for meaning (because the text will be meaningless now), leaving your undivided attention to hunt down fragments.

What implications do fragments hold for your writing?

Sentence fragment is an effective tool for emphasis and breeziness that is commonly used by professional writers. Unless specific instructions stop you from using them, say in academic or other formal writing, you may use them, though in moderation. But certainly, avoid the bad types.

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