We all know the basic elements of writing a sentence in English: starting with a capital letter and finishing with some kind of ending punctuation appropriate to the form of the sentence, be it a statement, a question or an exclamation.
Most people have mastered the fact that each sentence should communicate one key idea, and that they can use punctuation and conjunctions to extend that idea.
However, the use of sentence fragments is a problem I notice frequently, both as a teacher and as an avid reader. They are not the sole domain of people still learning to write: a novel I read over the weekend was littered with them, which frustrated me so much I was sorely tempted not to finish it.
A sentence fragment is a little bit of a sentences that don’t make sense on its own, and really needs either additional information or to be attached to the previous or following sentence in order to make sense.
It’s one thing to speak or send a quick text message using sentence fragments. We do it all the time without thinking twice. When writing for someone else to read our work, though, it’s important to express complete thoughts and to make sense on the first reading.
Example: I have been busy today. Writing this essay. It’s hard going.
This example sentence fragment can be corrected it in any one of the following ways:
- I have been busy today, writing this essay. It’s hard going.
- I have been busy today. Writing this essay is hard going.
- I have been busy today: writing this essay is hard going.
While it’s true that some writers use sentence fragments for stylistic effect, and may do so very effectively, it’s also true that they need to be proficient in constructing sentences and paragraphs so that they are able to make that technique work for them. They are useful in writing conversations, communicating a train of thought, tacking on afterthoughts, or reflecting a nervous, excited or angry character.
Most people who write sentence fragments are, alas, painfully unaware that they are even doing it. Their sentence fragments don’t work for them, because they don’t communicate ideas clearly and effectively: in fact, it tends to have the opposite effect.
As writers, we should avoid anything that frustrates or confuses their readers, particularly if they hope to develop a broad and loyal readership.
This highlights the importance of careful proofreading and editing in the writing process.
One of the most effective strategies for finding sentence fragments is to read your work aloud. Your voice and ears will alert you when things don’t sound right, much faster than your eyes will discern it. This is because your brain already knows what you intended to say, and tends to make written errors almost invisible to the eye when reading silently.