Sentence Fragments

Introduction

A sentence fragment is simply an incomplete sentence. Like this one.

Not all sentence fragments are bad. You can use a fragment for stylistic effect. But if you do, you should be deliberate about it.

Most sentence fragments happen because we have a habit of reading a sentence in context. Let’s say you come across the following passage:

Traveling is expensive. But if you plan ahead, you can save yourself a bundle of money. The key? Always pay off your credit card on time.

Only the first sentence is a complete sentence. It’s our mind that connects the ideas. For instance, we easily forget that but usually connects parts of the same sentence. In addition, when we ask questions, we often use sentence fragments.

If you are okay with such a casual approach then you might fix just the first fragment (by combining the two sentences). If you want a more formal tone, then you’ll have to do some further editing. As usual, everything depends on context. Blog posts have different standards than PhD dissertations.

Common Causes

It’s impossible to predict every kind of sentence fragment. Still, most fragments are the result of just two mistakes. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Conjunctions

Often a sentence starts with a conjunction that should actually be joined to the previous clause.

I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular. Because now our citizens will learn a new word.

Right: I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular, because now our citizens will learn a new word.
Right: I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular. Now our citizens will learn a new word.

In 1858, Japan agreed to the Harris Treaty. Even though it gave the United States increased access to Asian markets and limited Japanese sovereignty.

Right: In 1858, Japan agreed to the Harris Treaty, even though it gave the United States increased access to Asian markets and limited Japanese sovereignty.

Participles

Fragments also occur if you try to use a participle as the main verb. You may recall that present and past participles are verbals, and therefore cannot function like a regular verb.

A document known as the Donation of Constantine, stating that the Emperor Constantine had given the Pope the power to rule over the western half of the Roman Empire.

Right: A document known as the Donation of Constantine stated that the Emperor Constantine had given the Pope the power to rule over the western half of the Roman Empire.

So watch out for sentences that contain verbals, but no main verb!

Final Advice

The best way to spot fragments is to read every sentence on its own. Print out what you’ve written and read each sentence aloud. When you actually hear what your sentence sounds like, you’ll often be able to tell immediately if you have conveyed a complete thought.

Exercises



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