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Using Sentence Fragments Wisely

Using Sentence Fragments Wisely

Author: Rebecca Oberg

This learning packet should review:
-How to include fragments for effect
-When it is and is not appropriate to use fragments in writing
-Examples of effective and ineffective fragments in creative writing
-How to turn fragments into complete sentences

This learning packet offers information to a wide range of students and learning styles. Through informative text and slide show presentations, as well as several video clips, students encounter definitions, examples, opportunities for practice, and more, in a learner-friendly, engaging way.

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Sentence Fragments: A Deeper Look

This detailed and thorough slide show presentation offers learners an in-depth look at sentence fragments, including definitions, examples, and many opportunities for practice.

Source:, modified by Rebecca Oberg

Sentence Fragments: Overview and Examples

Fragments are incomplete sentences. Usually, fragments are pieces of sentences that have become disconnected from the main clause. One of the easiest ways to correct them is to remove the period between the fragment and the main clause. Other kinds of punctuation may be needed for the newly combined sentence.

Below are some examples with the fragments shown in red. Punctuation and/or words added to make corrections are highlighted in blue. Notice that the fragment is frequently a dependent clause or long phrase that follows the main clause.

  • Fragment:Purdue offers many majors in engineering. Such as electrical, chemical, and industrial engineering.
    Possible Revision: Purdue offers many majors in engineering, such as electrical, chemical, and industrial engineering.
  • Fragment: Coach Dietz exemplified this behavior by walking off the field in the middle of a game. Leaving her team at a time when we needed her.
    Possible Revision: Coach Dietz exemplified this behavior by walking off the field in the middle of a game, leaving her team at a time when we needed her.
  • Fragment: I need to find a new roommate. Because the one I have now isn't working out too well.
    Possible Revision: I need to find a new roommate because the one I have now isn't working out too well.
  • Fragment: The current city policy on housing is incomplete as it stands. Which is why we believe the proposed amendments should be passed.
    Possible Revision: Because the current city policy on housing is incomplete as it stands, we believe the proposed ammendments should be passed.

You may have noticed that newspaper and magazine journalists often use a dependent clause as a separate sentence when it follows clearly from the preceding main clause, as in the last example above. This is a conventional journalistic practice, often used for emphasis. For academic writing and other more formal writing situations, however, you should avoid such journalistic fragment sentences.

Some fragments are not clearly pieces of sentences that have been left unattached to the main clause; they are written as main clauses but lack a subject or main verb.

No main verb

  • Fragment: A story with deep thoughts and emotions.
    Possible Revisions:
    • Direct object: She told a story with deep thoughts and emotions.
    • Appositive: Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," a story with deep thoughts and emotions, has impressed critics for decades.
  • Fragment: Toys of all kinds thrown everywhere.
    Possible Revisions:
    • Complete verb: Toys of all kinds were thrown everywhere.
    • Direct object: They found toys of all kinds thrown everywhere.
  • Fragment: A record of accomplishment beginning when you were first hired.
    Possible Revisions:
    • Direct object: I've noticed a record of accomplishment beginning when you were first hired
    • Main verb: A record of accomplishment began when you were first hired.

No Subject

  • Fragment: With the ultimate effect of all advertising is to sell the product.
    Possible Revisions:
    • Remove preposition: The ultimate effect of all advertising is to sell the product.
  • Fragment: By paying too much attention to polls can make a political leader unwilling to propose innovative policies.
    Possible Revisions:
    • Remove preposition: Paying too much attention to polls can make a political leader unwilling to propose innovative policies.
  • Fragment: For doing freelance work for a competitor got Phil fired.
    Possible Revisions:
    • Remove preposition: Doing freelance work for a competitor got Phil fired.
    • Rearrange: Phil got fired for doing freelance work for a competitor.

These last three examples of fragments with no subjects are also known as mixed constructions, that is, sentences constructed out of mixed parts. They start one way (often with a long prepositional phrase) but end with a regular predicate. Usually the object of the preposition (often a gerund, as in the last two examples) is intended as the subject of the sentence, so removing the preposition at the beginning is usually the easiest way to edit such errors.

Source:, modified by Rebecca Oberg

Sentence Fragments and Run-Ons: Basic Info

This informative video clip offers some basic tips on sentence fragments and differentiates fragments from run-on sentences (the two terms are often learned side by side).

Source: YouTube

Sentence Fragments: Examples Galore!

This short video clip offers several great examples of sentence fragments along with solutions to make the fragments complete sentences.

Source: YouTube

An Entertaining Look at Sentence Fragments

This student-created video offers a creative and entertaining look at sentence fragments. For students struggling with this concept, the clip provides an engaging, simple lens through which to view the concept.

Source: YouTube

Using Fragments Effectively

Most writing handbooks insist that incomplete sentences--or fragments--are errors that need to be fixed. As Toby Fulwiler and Alan Hayakawa say in The Blair Handbook (Prentice Hall, 2003), "The problem with a fragment is its incompleteness. A sentence expresses a complete idea, but a fragment neglects to tell the reader either what it is about (the subject) or what happened (the verb)" (p. 464). And in formal writing, the prescription against fragments often makes good sense.

But not always. As we'll see in this article, the sentence fragment may be used deliberately to create a variety of powerful effects.

Fragments of Thought

Midway through J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace (Secker & Warburg, 1999), the main character experiences shock as the result of a brutal attack at his daughter's house. After the intruders leave, he attempts to come to terms with what has just occurred:

It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life. Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head. Count Lucy lucky too. Above all Lucy.

A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around. not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things.
What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to this theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.

In this passage, the fragments (in italics) reflect the character's efforts to make sense of the harsh, disruptive experience. The sense of incompleteness conveyed by the fragments is deliberate and quite effective.


Narrative and Descriptive Fragments

In Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1837), rascally Alfred Jingle tells a macabre tale that today would probably be labeled an urban legend. Jingle relates the anecdote in a curiously fragmented fashion:

"Heads, heads--take care of your heads!" cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. "Terrible place--dangerous work--other day--five children--mother--tall lady, eating sandwiches--forgot the arch--crash--knock--children look round--mother's head off--sandwich in her hand--no mouth to put it in--head of a family off--shocking, shocking!"

Jingle's narrative style calls to mind the famous opening of Bleak House (1853), in which Dickens devotes three paragraphs to a choppy description of a London fog: "fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck." In both passages, the writer is more concerned with conveying sensations and creating a mood than in neatly completing a thought.

The Series of Illustrative Fragments

In "Diligence" (one of the sketches in "Suite Americaine," 1921), H. L. Mencken employed fragments of a different kind to evoke what he saw as the bleakness of early-twentieth-century small-town America:

Pale druggists in remote towns of the Epworth League and flannel nightgown belts, endlessly wrapping up bottles of Peruna. . . . Women hidden away in the damp kitchens of unpainted houses along the railroad tracks, frying tough beefsteaks. . . . Lime and cement dealers being initiated into the Knights of Pythias, the Red Men or the Woodmen of the World. . . . Watchmen at lonely railroad crossings in Iowa, hoping that they'll be able to get off to hear the United Brethren evangelist preach. . . . Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form. . . . Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects. . . . Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls. . . . Women confined for the ninth or tenth time, wondering helplessly what it is all about. . . . Methodist preachers retired after forty years of service in the trenches of God, upon pensions of $600 a year.

Collected rather than connected, such brief fragmented examples offer snapshots of sadness and disappointment.

Fragments and Crots

Different as these passages are, they illustrate a common point: fragments aren't inherently bad. Though a strictly prescriptive grammarian might insist that all fragments are demons waiting to be exorcised, professional writers have looked more kindly on these ragged bits and pieces of prose. And they have found some imaginative ways to use fragments effectively.

Almost 30 years ago, in An Alternate Style: Options in Composition (now out of print), Winston Weathers made a strong case for going beyond strict definitions of correctness when teaching style. Students should be exposed to a wide range of styles, he argued, including the "variegated, discontinuous, fragmented" forms used to great effect by Coetzee, Dickens, Mencken, and countless other writers.

Perhaps because "fragment" is so commonly equated with "error," Weathers reintroduced the term crot, an archaic word for "bit," to characterize this deliberately choppy style. An increasingly common style. The language of lists, advertising, blogs, text messages. Like any device, often overworked. Sometimes inappropriately applied.

So this isn't a celebration of all fragments. Incomplete sentences that bore, distract, or confuse readers should be corrected. But there are moments, whether under the archway or at a lonely railroad crossing, when fragments (or crots) work just fine.