What Is a Sentence Fragment in Writing?

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In English grammar, a 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. Also known as a sentence fragment, a verbless sentence, and a minor sentence. Though in traditional grammar fragments are usually treated as grammatical errors (or as errors in punctuation), they are sometimes used by professional writers to create emphasis or other stylistic effects.

Examples and Observations

  • "I'm home, but the house is gone. Not a sandbag, not a nail or a scrap of wire.
    (Tim O'Brien, "LZ Gator, Vietnam." The New York Times Magazine, October 2, 1994)
  • "Today I woke up half a century old. I am not ready. Too much yet to do. Too much everyday living. Too much left unsaid, unimagined.
    "Late afternoon. The sky hunkers down, presses, like a lover, against the land. Small sounds. A far sheep, faint barking. Time to drive on, toward Strathpeffer, friends, a phone call from my father.
    (Judith Kitchen, "Culloden," "Only the Dance". University of South Carolina Press, 1994)
  • * * *
    Asterisks? So soon?
    * * *
    It is a hot weather sign, the asterisk. The cicada of the typewriter, telling the long steaming noons.
    (E.B. White, "Hot Weather." "One Man's Meat", 1942)
  • "'Yes,' said Bond. He looked levelly at the great red face across the desk. 'It's a remarkable case-history. Galloping paranoia. Delusions of jealousy and persecution. Megalomaniac hatred and desire for revenge. Curiously enough,' he went on conversationally, 'it may have something to do with your teeth. Diastema, they call it. Comes from sucking your thumb when you're a child. Yes, I expect that's what the psychologists will say when they get you into the lunatic asylum. "Ogre's teeth." Being bullied at school and so on. Extraordinary the effect it has on a child.'"
    (Ian Fleming, "Moonraker", 1955)
  • "Departures from 22 North American gateways. Connections to over 170 European destinations. Making the world seem ever smaller."
    (ad for Lufthansa)
  • "A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY."
    (Aldous Huxley, "Brave New World", 1932)
  • "The hawk sailing by at 200 feet, a squirming snake in its talons. Salt in the drinking water. Salt, selenium, arsenic, radon and radium in the water in the gravel in your bones. Water so hard it bends light, drills holes in rock and chokes up your radiator."
    (Edward Abbey, "Journey Home". E.P. Dutton, 1977)

Creating Stylistic Effects With Fragments

"The sentence fragments used for their stylistic effect are not the kind that teachers mark with a marginal 'frag'; those are usually the result of punctuation errors, often a subordinate clause punctuated as a full sentence. But experienced writers know how to use fragments deliberately and effectively — noun phrases or verb phrases that add a detail without a full sentence and invariably call attention to themselves."
(Martha Kolln, "Rhetorical Grammar". Allyn and Bacon, 1999)

"Since the term 'sentence fragment' carries with it a pejorative association, let me use the term 'minor sentence.' A minor sentence is any punctuated sentence which does not contain at least one independent clause."
(James Alatis, "Language, Communication, and Social Meaning". Georgetown University Press, 1992)

Fragments As Errors

"In general, it is best to avoid sentence fragments in formal and college writing. However, it's important to be aware that good writers do use fragments, sparingly.

"[The peacock] shook itself, and the sound was like a deck of cards being shuffled in the other room. It moved forward a step. Then another step.
-From Raymond Carver, 'Feathers'"

(David Blakesley and Jeffrey L. Hoogeveen, "The Brief Thomson Handbook". Thomson, 2008)

"A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence masquerading as a complete one. A sentence must contain a subject and a verb. It is a fragment if one of these elements is missing, as in the following example:

Alice is busy tonight. Working on her French essay.

"To correct this sentence fragment, attach it to the preceding sentence and replace the period with a comma:

Alice is busy tonight, working on her French essay."

(Derek Soles, "The Essentials of Academic Writing", 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 2010)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Sentence Fragment in Writing?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-fragment-sentence-1690871. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is a Sentence Fragment in Writing? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-fragment-sentence-1690871 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Sentence Fragment in Writing?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-fragment-sentence-1690871 (accessed May 30, 2023).