Sentence Fragments: To Use or Not to Use?
Sentence fragments are common in fiction, but what are they and how should we use them? In this post, I’ll break down what a sentence fragment is, theorize why authors use sentence fragments, discuss their pros and cons, and finally suggest some tips for using them.
What Is a Sentence Fragment?
A sentence fragment is anything that is not a full grammatical sentence. Before we start talking about fragments in more detail, though, let’s pick apart what makes a full sentence.
A grammatical sentence only requires two elements: a subject and a verb. We can add in things like direct objects, indirect objects, conjunctions, and so on, but at its most basic level, a sentence is a subject and a verb—that’s it. Here’s an example of a sentence:
In this case, we have a subject (“I”) and a verb (“danced”). Sentences can become highly complex if we start adding other elements, but as long as there is a subject and a verb, we have a grammatical sentence.
Fragments, on the other hand, lack one or both of these elements. A simple example of a fragment is something like this:
Here, there is no subject and no verb—just an interjection. Like sentences, fragments can get longer and more complex:
The orange sun on the horizon.
This is a fragment because there is no verb. (You could probably also argue that there’s no subject because you can’t really have one without the other.) Technically, this is a noun phrase: it simply states something about a noun without giving us an action or the doer of an action. It’s a fragment.
The easiest way to identify fragments is by looking for verbs. If you’re missing a conjugated verb attached to a subject, you might have a sentence fragment. This, too, can get complicated. Consider the following:
The orange sun shining on the horizon.
You might look at this example and think, “Bodie, there’s a verb there: ‘shining’.” Yes, shining is an action in this case, but it’s not conjugated to agree with “sun.” “Shining” is in its present participle form, so this sentence is still a fragment. (This is what I consider a bad type of fragment, but we’ll discuss that more below.) To turn this into a sentence, you’d need to conjugate “shining” to agree with “sun”: “The orange sun shines on the horizon” or “The orange sun is shining on the horizon.”
Why Do We Use Sentence Fragments?
I can think of two main reasons why authors choose to use sentence fragments.
First, we use fragments in speech all the time. If you were to ask me what color the sky is, I’m likely to just respond with “blue,” not “The sky is blue.”
Second, sentence fragments introduce variation into the prose. Authors are often told that using “to be” verbs (“was,” “is,” “were,” etc.) is bad or (quite incorrectly) “passive.” Their solution is to cut those verbs as much as possible and to lean on sentence fragments instead.
Consider my example above: “The orange sun is shining on the horizon.” I have a “to be” verb here in the form of “is.” Because so many authors have been told that “to be” verbs are bad, they’ll employ a sentence fragment instead: “The orange sun shining on the horizon.”
Yes and no.
Over-reliance on sentence fragments can cause clunky, awkward, and unclear writing that frustrates readers.
The Problem with Fragments
Authors sometimes use fragments as a crutch. They’re easy: just blurt out information. The reader can figure it out, right?
The English-speaking brain is conditioned to listen/look for subjects and verbs; those two parts of speech are the basis of the language. Like I said above, a sentence requires only those two pieces. With actions and things doing actions, we can express a myriad of different concepts.
As soon as you start taking away subjects and/or verbs, you start messing with the brain’s programming. Readers are subconsciously looking for subjects and verbs because they give order and meaning to sentences.
Not all fragments are bad, of course, which we’ll discuss in the next section, but be aware that the English brain wants subjects and verbs. I think authors sometimes use fragments out of laziness. It’s easy to just toss information on a page without considering the action or the doer of the action. It’s a lot easier to create a fragment than to think of a verb other than “is” or “was.” But that’s the challenge of writing.
Best Practice for Using Fragments
Before I jump into my recommendations for using sentence fragments, I first need to address the double standard that exists between literary and genre fiction in terms of “grammar.” I’ve written a long piece about the public’s misunderstanding of grammar and style, but I haven’t published it yet because it’s kind of a rambling mess. I’ll clean it up someday, but my point is that readers of genre fiction expect more traditional grammar and style. Readers of literary fiction, on the other hand, are more forgiving and flexible.
Don’t believe me? I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was a great book, but getting through it was a bit of a slog. There were a ton of fragments. Sometimes, entire paragraphs comprised nothing but fragments. Go check out the reviews for the book on Amazon. Do many of them complain about the “grammar”? Nope. Another good example is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. From a grammar and style perspective, that book is a total disaster (and one of the few I had to put down because the prose was so bad), but it’s lauded as a classic.
If you try to write like Atwood or Gibson and publish genre fiction in Kindle Unlimited, readers may slay you with one- or two-star reviews decrying your bad “grammar.” I think genre fiction writers try to emulate literary authors too often, and this might be another reason why writers choose to use fragments when a regular old sentence would do just fine.
This is the double standard I’m talking about. Because my clients are all independent authors writing genre fiction, my advice is directed at them.
Here’s what I recommend when it comes to fragments: use them very sparingly. Try, at all costs, to avoid letting your fragments get over five or six words long. Keep them short and and ensure that readers won’t confuse them with sentences. Here’s an example of some nice short, clear fragments in action (the fragments are underlined):
I glanced over my shoulder. Nothing there. I put my head down and kept walking. A rustling behind me. I closed my eyes and started running.
We have two fragments here: “Nothing there” and “A rustling behind me.” Both are short and sweet and hard to confuse for a full sentence. Readers aren’t going to scan these and start wondering where the verb is. Here’s an example of confusing and unclear fragment use:
The sun rose above the horizon. Orange rays filtering through the clouds, casting their light on the houses bathed in the sun’s warm glow.
You probably get what I’m saying here, but yikes, it’s not easy to digest. I see this kind of construction all the time over at /r/destructivereaders, and it usually gets trashed by the reviewers because it’s hard to understand. A KU reviewer on Amazon would probably see this and automatically give the book a one-star review for bad grammar. Strictly speaking, they wouldn’t be wrong.
I’d recommend writing this instead: “The sun’s orange rays filtered through the clouds and bathed the houses in a warm glow.” It says the same thing but in the form of a sentence (the subject is “rays” and the verbs are “filtered” and “bathed”). Readers are far less likely to complain about this sentence than the fragment above.
Coming to this revision takes a bit of work, but nobody’s every accused clear, concise, and grammatically sound writing of being easy.
Sentence fragments have their place. In literary fiction, they’re commonplace because readers of literary fiction tend to be more accepting of unorthodox grammar and style. Readers of genre fiction, however, like the rules. They want quick and easy reads. Sentence fragments, if long and complex, make reading slow and difficult because English places so much emphasis on subjects and verbs.
So play it safe. Use fragments, yes, but only in small doses and in instances where the reader can’t mistake them for sentences. Resist the urge to avoid using “to be” verbs by just stating things in the form of noun phrases. Take your time, think of an action, and give your readers the subjects and verbs their brains crave.