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Writer's Handbook

SENTENCE FRAGMENTS

Sentence fragments are just what their name suggests: wordings which are only part of a sentence but which are written as if they were a complete sentence, with a capitalized word at the start and a period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end.

Sentence fragments do have legitimate uses. We use them in everyday conversation quite frequently, as for example when a student replies "A little" after being asked, "Did you study for the test?" Advertisements in newspapers and magazines often use sentence fragments. And even in essays for general readers, fragments can sometimes be helpful in creating a relaxed or playful tone, as in the following passage, which has the sentence fragment in bold:

  • Of course, new students quickly float up or down to their natural rung on any high school's social ladder, and I was no exception. Unfortunately, my natural rung wasn't very high. I may have left my identity behind in Muncie, but my personality and appearance had come to Hillsdale with me. Still a nerd.

But in most writing you'll do for college classes, sentence fragments are likely to be inappropriate. In fact, most of your professors probably consider sentence fragments to be rather serious errors in their students' writing. So let's take a look at how sentence fragments occur and how to eliminate them when they're inappropriate.

Sometimes the sentence fragment may lack either a complete subject or a complete predicate, as in the following examples, in which the bolded materials are sentence fragments:

  • The letters to the editor section is often full of letters about the Packers. Usually praising Brett Favre to the skies or else giving angry advice about how the team should be coached.
  • The Academy Award for Best Picture went to Million Dollar Baby. The story of a young woman determined to succeed as a boxer.

Sometimes the sentence fragment may contain a complete subject and complete predicate but is still not a complete sentence because it begins with a subordinating conjunction such as although or because, or by a relative pronoun such as who or that, as in the following examples:

  • The production received an excellent review from the local drama critic. Although the audience the night I saw it didn't seem to like it much.
  • I was always being compared with my brother. Who always got better grades, was better in sports, and was more popular than I.

In most cases, the simplest, most effective way to correct an unintentional sentence fragment is to connect it with the previous complete sentence by changing a period before the fragment to a comma and eliminating the capital letter at the start of the fragment:

  • The letters to the editor section is often full of letters about the Packers, usually praising Brett Favre to the skies or else giving angry advice about how the team should be coached.
  • The Academy Award for Best Picture went to Million Dollar Baby, the story of a young woman determined to succeed as a boxer.
  • The production received an excellent review from the local drama critic, although the audience the night I saw it didn't seem to like it much.
  • I was always being compared with my brother, who always got better grades, was better in sports, and was more popular than I.

Of course, sentence fragments can be eliminated in other ways as well--for example, by rewording the fragment itself so that it becomes a complete sentence, rather than connecting it to the previous complete sentence. Here's an example:

  • The letters to the editor section is often full of letters about the Packers. Most of these letters either praise Brett Favre to the skies or else give angry advice about how the team should be coached.

But again, simply connecting the fragment to the previous sentence by use of a comma is usually the best solution.