Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Identifying Sentence Fragments

I was browsing through my old posts this morning and was surprised to find that I haven’t written about sentence fragments before. So let’s dive back into the basics of what makes up a sentence: a subject, a verb, and (often) a direct object.

     Mary-Anne    devoured    her sandwich.
        Subject           Verb        Direct Object

The subject of the sentence is the thing that is performing an action. The verb is the action that is being performed. The direct object is the thing that is being acted upon—the thing that the verb is affecting. Not all verbs require a direct object.

     Nathaniel    ran.
       Subject     Verb      (no direct object needed)

No matter how much additional information you add, the heart of your sentence will always be a subject, a verb, and a potential direct object.

     Every morning before work, Mary-Anne jogged around the park.
                Additional Info               Subject     Verb        Add. Info 

     Nathaniel loves peanuts on his ice cream sundaes.
       Subject   Verb   D.O.            Add. Info

If a sentence does not have that central subject and verb, then it isn’t a sentence—it’s a sentence fragment.

The subject and verb of a sentence are like the bread in a sandwich; take them away, and you no longer have a sandwich, you have a salad. Or worse, a KFC Double Down.

     Mary-Anne looked around the dusty old room. Light from the window fell upon an open jewelry box sitting on the shelf, full of tarnished old jewelry. Dirty emerald bracelets and ragged pearl necklaces.

The first sentence of that example has both a subject and a verb: Mary-Anne and looked, respectively. The second sentence has them as well: Light and fell. The third sentence, however, is a fragment—it has nouns that could serve as subjects, but it has no verb.

The problem with sentence fragments is they technically have no meaning—they can impart scant amounts of information, but they don’t tell readers what to do with it. Imagine helping a friend clean their house; you arrive, they hand you a bucket of paint and a brush, and then they walk off without explaining what they wanted you to do with the paint. Do you paint the room you’re in? Another room? The exterior of the house? Did they just want you to put the can of paint away?

Sentence fragments create a similar sense of confusion on a smaller scale. They can throw your readers out of the story, which is rarely desirable.

Now, sentence fragments aren’t always bad. Think about the way you think—it’s not always in complete sentences, is it? Sentence fragments can be a useful method for mimicking the way people think and perceive the world. For instance:

     I sniffed the air, trying to identify the familiar scent. Pickles? Why did my office smell like pickles?

In that example, Pickles? is a sentence fragment. Since it mimics the way humans think, it is easy and natural to follow the author’s intended meaning. This is a useful fragment.

In the future we may delve more deeply into sentence fragments and what makes them work or not work. For now, my advice is to avoid them. They can be occasionally useful, but their detriments tend to outweigh their usefulness unless you really know what you’re doing. More often than not, you’re better off using full sentences.

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