Catchy, succinct and attention grabbing, sentence fragments are everywhere in advertising. Take, for instance: “Because you’re worth it”, “The beer of kings”, or “Finger lickin’ good”. They also litter our speech. A sullen teen, limiting himself to as few words as possible might grunt to his mother: “Going out”. And while she might shout “I’m going out” at his retreating figure, she might also equally text a friend the following: “Bad day. Having wine. Fancy it?” In short, while we know in theory they are wrong, in the right context sentence fragments can feel absolutely right.
Which brings us to the crux of the dilemma. If sentence fragments are an integral part of our linguistic reality, are they acceptable in fiction? The answer is yes, but only sometimes. Like any controversial subject, it’s complex. And as any competent wordsmith knows, if you’re going to break the rules, you must fully understand them. Which is why this little essay begins with a definition.
What is a sentence fragment?
A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence, that is a sentence that lacks a subject and a verb. However, a subject and verb alone are sometimes not enough to make a full sentence. While “She swam” could be said to be a complete sentence, the reader instinctively feels something is lacking. To complete it, we need to add context. Something like: “She swam in the sea” or “She swam quickly”. Bearing that in mind, let’s update our definition to: A full sentence contains a subject, verb, and complete thought.
Remember “Because you’re worth it”? If we kept our definition to subject and verb, this would be considered a complete sentence, however, the “because” leaves us hanging. We need to know why you’re worth it, hence the necessity of another clause to complete that thought. But we’re not done yet. There are two important exceptions to this rule: the passive tense and imperatives.
The passive tense
In passive sentences, the object goes at the start of the sentence, with the subject either tagged on at the end, or deleted entirely. Take, for instance: “The telephone was invented in 1875.” While this sentence dispenses with the subject, namely Alexander Graham Bell, it is still a full sentence because it contains the completion of a thought with context: “in 1875”. In passive sentences, the object is simply given priority and effectively becomes the subject.
A word of caution here though: the passive voice can sound extremely clunky and should only be used when you are trying to draw attention to the object. At all costs do your best to avoid awkward phrasing such as: “The cake – a white chocolate and cream affair – was made by Marjorie.” This could easily be tightened up into: “Marjorie’s cake was a white chocolate and cream affair.”
With imperatives, that is orders, a full sentence can be shortened to one single word. “Go”, “fly” or “hurry”, can all be complete sentences in and of themselves. Here, the subject of the sentence is completely done away with. When an army officer gives an order, he can simply bark out a one-word command to his troops without fear of summoning a member of the grammar police!
When to break the rules and use sentence fragments?
Now we know what a full sentence is, we can identify a sentence fragment. Nine times out of ten, you want to be deleting fragments. In addition to giving the impression that you are not familiar with the rules of grammar, too many fragments can make your prose feel choppy and, as a result, difficult to read. However, the following exceptions can be made:
Remember that monosyllabic teen? What better way to get his churlish speech across than by using sentence fragments:
Marjorie asked her son where he was.
‘Friend’s,’ Tom said.
Stream of consciousness
Friend’s! What kind of a fool did he think she was? The cheek… She looked at her phone. A new text message. Work. Another problem to worry about.
Choppy prose may be difficult to read, but it does have its place. Here it’s showing Marjorie’s state of mind. She’s distracted, unfocussed and angry. Though I wouldn’t continue in this vein for too long, a short paragraph like this is perfect for reflecting a character’s mindset.
Changing up the rhythm of your prose
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”
Notice how this excellent piece of writing also contains a sentence fragment? Can you spot it? It’s the solitary word, “Music”. Used just the once, it emphasizes a point and breaks up the rhythm of the piece. However, that’s the only time Provost allows himself to break the rules. In the rest of the text, he changes things up by using imperatives for impact, which he alternates with flowing lengthier sentences.
To sum up, if you’re going to use a fragment outside of dialogue or stream of consciousness, make sure you do so sparingly. Be warned, I’ve heard reports of some agents turning down work simply on the basis that it contains too many sentence fragments. That being said, rules are made to be broken. Just be sure those sentence fragments are there for a damn good reason.
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