sentence fragment

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

sentence fragment
Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof (2009). (Getty Images)


In English grammar, a sentence fragment is a group of words that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point but is grammatically incomplete. See Fragment.

In their book When Words Collide (2012), Kessler and McDonald note that sentence fragments "can be single words, brief phrases, or lengthy dependent clauses. The number of words is irrelevant. What matters is that the words do not meet the definition of a sentence." 

Though in traditional grammar sentence fragments are usually treated as grammatical errors, they are commonly used by professional writers to create emphasis or other stylistic effects. See Minor Sentence.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "But she looked like she had a boyfriend. Did she? That secure look. So at ease. Not just a boyfriend, but a good man, too. A large man maybe. A boyfriend who lifts heavy things for a living. Or could, if he wanted to."
    (Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Prentice-Hall, 2000)
  • "Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer's mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches."
    (Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes, 1926)
  • "Anyway--why go into the desert? Really, why do it? That sun, roaring at you all day long. The fetid, tepid, vapid little water holes slowly evaporating under a scum of grease, full of cannibal beetles, spotted toads, horsehair worms, liver flukes, and down at the bottom, inevitably, the pale cadaver of a ten-inch centipede. Those pink rattlesnakes down in The Canyon, those diamondback monsters thick as a truck driver's wrist that lurk in shady places along the trail, those unpleasant solpugids and unnecessary Jerusalem crickets that scurry on dirty claws across your face at night. Why?"
    (Edward Abbey, Journey Home. E.P. Dutton, 1977)
  • Deliberate and Unintended Sentence Fragments
    "Bear in mind that a sentence fragment is successful only when it is clear to the reader that it has been used deliberately. When Winston Churchill recounted Hitler's boast that Britain was a chicken whose neck he would quickly wring, and then ended his account with the sentence fragment: 'Some chicken, some neck!' he demonstrated just how effective the deliberate use of an incomplete sentence can be. The unintended fragment is another matter. Be alert to the possibility of sentence fragments, and eliminate any that are likely to strike readers as errors rather than as deliberate and effective rhetorical devices."
    (Nicholas Visser, Handbook for Writers of Essays & Theses, 2nd ed. Maskew Miller Longman, 1992)
  • "Rules" for Making Effective Sentence Fragments
    [H]ere are a few suggested rules for making effective sentence fragments:
    - To create a dramatic pause for emphasis, use a period instead of some other mark of punctuation (or, more rarely, no punctuation at all) before a sentence-terminating element. . . .
    It has the look of something a twelve-year-old would do. And enjoy doing. . . .
    - To create intense emphasis and succinctness, delete all but one of the major elements of an independent clause. . . .
    I drew back on the syringe. Nothing. . . .
    - To emphasize the individual items in a list or series, use a period rather than a comma between them. . . .
    . . . one could sort these scents in rows and categories: by herbs; flowers; fruits; spices; woods. Or by places. By people. By loves.
    - To achieve a more natural, conversational tone as well as economy of expression, express questions in fragmented form. . . .
    Our minds, of course, automatically filter much of this hubbub. But at what cost? . . .
    - For naturalness and economy, also express responses to questions in fragmented form. . . .
    Am I jealous that these people have been able to make more sense of Barth and Pynchon than I have? Probably. . . .
    - To give additional emphasis to negatives, isolate them as fragments. . . .
    Never deny desire. Not once. . . .
    - To make exclamations more terse, use their fragmentary form. . . .
    Against company policy! She'd make an exception in my case! Though not for a full refund! (Edgar H. Schuster, "A Fresh Look at Sentence Fragments." English Journal, May 2006)
  • "Legitimate Uses of Sentence Fragments:
    to answer your own rhetorical question or to create a fragmented impression in dramatic scenes.
    Legitimate fragment: Why do politicians lie to the public? Because the public wants to be lied to.
    Legitimate fragments: Whack! The stick caught the side of his head. Whack. Dizzy. Spinning images of the windows. Whack! Sal went down." (M. Garrett Bauman, Ideas and Details: A Guide to College Writing, 7th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)
  • Low-Mileage Fragments
    "Most fragments piggyback on the action of the sentences preceding them, adding some modifying detail or reinforcing imagery: The vacuum sucked the alien through the porthole. Tentacles first, egg sac last. Into the grip of space. Black. Airless. Lethal. But the ride can go only so far. Even with the drama provided by full-stop pauses, fragments soon run out of energy. The narrative needs a recharge: namely, the power of verbs driving subjects."
    (Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style. Random House, 2007)
  • Correcting Sentence Fragments
    "Some fragments are word groups that are missing a subject, a verb, or both. Others are dependent clauses that are separated from main clauses.
    "You can correct most sentence fragments in one of two ways. You can either attach the fragment to another sentence, making sure to punctuate the new sentence properly, or you can rewrite the fragment as a complete sentence."
    (Jill Meryl Levy, Take Command of Your Writing. Firebelle, 1998)
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Nordquist, Richard. "sentence fragment." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). sentence fragment. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "sentence fragment." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).