Sentence Fragments. Not a Good Idea.

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If you watch a lot of television or if you often read newspapers and magazines, you have been bombarded with sentence fragments. These fragments are typically used in television and print advertising — or in article headlines — because they are short, direct, catchy, and powerful. As a result, you may be tempted to use that same fragmented style in your writing. If you do, however, you should know that most college instructors don’t want to see fragments and are more interested in complete sentences that are grammatically correct.

A sentence fragment is, essentially, a group of words that looks like a complete sentence but is really only part of a sentence. By contrast, a complete sentence is made up of three parts: (1) a noun (a person, a place, a thing, or an idea); (2) a verb (an action word or a word (or words) that helps to make a statement); and (3) an independent idea.

Here’s an example: “Michael Phelps swims.” In this particular sentence, “Michael Phelps” is the noun (a person), and “swims” is the verb (an action word). Here’s a second example: “Athens is the capital of Greece.” In this example, “Athens” is the noun (a place) and “is” is the verb that helps to make the statement an independent idea. If you find yourself writing fragments, you have probably made one of the following three mistakes.

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Common Mistakes

1. You begin an introductory thought with a subordinate conjunction but never follow through with the main idea. A subordinate conjunction is a connecting word that introduces a clause to indicate time, place, reason, or contrast. The following list shows examples of these subordinate conjunctions and examples of fragments (in italics).

• Time: before, during, after, when, whenever, until, while. Until the day I die.

• Place: where, wherever. Wherever you see water.

• Reason: if, since, because, unless, in order to, so that. In order to succeed in business.

• Contrast: though, even though, although. Even though math is difficult for me.

In order to turn these fragments into complete sentences, all you have to do is replace the period with a comma, and, then, supply the main idea after the introductory phrase.

Until the day I die, I will always love you.

Wherever you see water, you should go swimming.

In order to succeed in business, you must learn from your mistakes.

Even though math is difficult for me, I am determined to succeed.

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2. You use a gerund (a verb form ending in the letters “ing”) without a helping word or phrase. Look at the following fragments:

Walking to the store.

Dancing in Denver.

At first glance, these two fragments look like complete sentences because they both have a noun (“store” in the first example and “Denver” in the second), and they both have a verb form (the action words “walking” and “dancing”). However, neither fragment has the third part mentioned in the second paragraph: an independent idea.

To turn these fragments into complete sentences, you can again replace the period with a comma, and, then, supply the main thought (“Walking to the store, I found a five-dollar bill”). Or, you can add words to make the initial phrase an independent idea (“Dancing in Denver is delightful”). A third option is to add another noun to the gerund (“Willie was walking to the store” and “Dorothy is dancing in Denver”). In each case, the revisions are complete sentences because they contain all three key parts.

3. You end your sentences too soon. Some students make the mistake of inserting a period where it’s not needed or where another punctuation mark should be used. For instance, they describe one action, end the sentence, and, then, add another action. Here’s an example: “I built the shed. And painted it too.” In this case, both actions should be included in the same sentence. Thus, the period after the word “shed” isn’t necessary, and the letter “a” in the word “and” should be lower case: “I built the shed and painted it too.”

Some students also insert a period before a list or an example. Look at the following two sentences: “He likes all sports. Baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. He has one favorite, though. Football.” In this situation, you should really use colons rather than periods after the word “sports” and after the word “though.” The first colon tells the reader that a list of sports will follow, and the second colon indicates that the name of the favorite sport will follow.

“He likes all sports: baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. He has one favorite, though: football.”

So, if sentence fragments are such a serious writing offense, why does this article’s headline include two fragments? As mentioned earlier, fragments are effective if you’re trying to grab the reader’s attention. Fragments may also be acceptable when you’re trying to be creative or when you’re writing informally in a brainstorming session or a journal. Overall, though, for most formal college writing assignments, sentence fragments are not a good idea.

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