Core Grammar #4: Sentence Fragments

Not all the pieces are there

Fragments are extremely common in speech and in advertising. They are actually required in résumés! You normally find them in PowerPoint slides and in subheadings (like most of the blue subheads below). They tend to be very breezy and informal, and if they occur in a context, the reader can usually figure them out very easily. The problem is that academic and business readers (after the reader has gotten through your résumé) see them as evidence that the writer is breezy, informal, and poorly educated.

The main point of this page

The point is the same as the point I made concerning run-on sentences: it's all about sentence structure, not length or meaning, so don't retreat into "Well, I could figure it out." That's not the point.

Definition of a sentence fragment

Something got punctuated as a sentence, but it didn't have all the required pieces—or it had something that said that structurally it needs to be part of a larger sentence (it's a dependent clause).

A really long fragment

Although Hermione and Harry were close friends all through their school days at Hogwarts, and everyone assumed that they were in love because they were constant companions and seemed to compliment one another's personalities perfectly.

The real problem with that sample is the although at the beginning—it is a signal that the whole long thing is actually a subordinate clause just waiting to get attached to an independent clause:

Although Hermione and Harry were close friends all through their school days at Hogwarts, and everyone assumed that they were in love because they were constant companions and seemed to compliment one another's personalities perfectly, Hermione fell in love with Ron.

Allen's fragment guess number one

That fragment about Hermione and Harry is 35 words long. I think students panic and figure that there MUST be a maximum length to a sentence, and it's GOT to be time to hit the period key. No, it's not length. It's structure. The reader (or computer) never needs to take a breath, so don't retreat into "well I couldn't read it aloud without stopping." Give up smoking and figure out how to recognize subordinate clauses.

Allen's fragment guess number two

Subordinate clauses are extremely uncommon in speech, especially in informal lunchroom speech, so students are unfamiliar with them and do not know how to link them up with an independent clause. (You would never say that previous sentence to anyone unless you were reading it. I wouldn't either. It's the kind of sentence you find in writing, not in speaking.)

Most fragments make perfect sense when you read them aloud, because they are usually subordinate clauses that hook up nicely with the independent clause of a neighboring sentence:

Although I am terrible in the kitchen. I can turn out a good meal if I simply remember to follow the recipe. I love to cook and eat Italian food. Especially spaghetti.

Read that aloud and it's quite difficult to hear the problem. It sounds wonderful. If, however, you read the sentences backward to break up the link between the sentences, you see that two of them needed the neighbors to get a complete structure:

  1. Especially spaghetti.
  2. I love to cook and eat Italian food.
  3. I can turn out a good meal if I simply remember to follow the recipe.
  4. Although I am terrible in the kitchen.

When you make the jump from spoken English to written English, you learn that subordinate structures can hook up (often with a comma), and you get this result:

Although I am terrible in the kitchen, I can turn out a good meal if I simply remember to follow the recipe. I love to cook and eat Italian food, especially spaghetti.

More information:

Help from the computer:

The grammar checker is a bit better at spotting fragments than at spotting run-ons, but most of them are still terrible.

The way I mark things:

I will usually mark Frag above the place where the problem occurred.


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/10/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.