Grammar Tips: What Is a Sentence Fragment?
  • 3-minute read
  • 8th March 2018

Grammar Tips: What Is a Sentence Fragment?

Being proofreaders, we’re keen on keeping things grammatical. As such, we feel sad when we see a sentence that’s been left incomplete. It’s like the linguistic version of an abandoned puppy.

But what is it that makes a sentence complete? And is an incomplete sentence always wrong? Our guide to sentence fragments can answer your questions and help you avoid errors in your work.

The Sentence Fragment

A sentence fragment is, quite simply, an incomplete sentence. At its most basic, a sentence needs a subject (i.e., something or someone to perform an action) and a verb (i.e., an action or state of being).

Subject

Verb Phrase

The bird…

…flew away.

If a sentence is missing a subject or a verb, it will be incomplete (i.e., a sentence fragment):

Fragment (No Subject): Flew away.

Fragment (No Verb): The bird.

Neither of these is a complete sentence, so we don’t know what the author meant. In other cases, though, sentence fragments may have a subject and a verb while still being incomplete. For example:

The bird pecked my.

Here, we have the subject “bird” and verb “pecked,” but there is something missing after “my.” This is because “pecked” is a transitive verb, so it needs an object (i.e., something that is being acted on). The more complex a sentence gets, the easier it is to miss something like this.

Are Sentence Fragments Always Wrong?

No! Sentence fragments are common. In literature, for example, using a short sentence fragment can be a good way of changing the pace or tone of a piece of writing. Compare the following:

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No Fragment: The budgie was small, but loud.

Fragment: The budgie was small. But loud.

In the second, “But loud” is technically a sentence fragment. But by using a period instead of a comma, the author adds a dramatic pause before the fragment to emphasize how loud the budgie is.

I am budgie. Hear me roar.

More generally, we all use sentence fragments in our own lives. And you’ll find them used in advertising and pop culture all the time! As long as you can understand them, this isn’t a problem.

How to Avoid “Bad” Fragments

Sentence fragments become an issue when it is hard to tell what someone is saying. For example:

The canary was singing because.

Here, there’s obviously something missing from the sentence, since “because” is meant to introduce a reason. As such, this fragment would need completing before it makes sense.

In other cases, we might understand what the author means by a sentence fragment, but unless there is a good reason for using one, it is still better to write in full sentences. For instance:

The study examined several species. Including canaries, budgies and doves.

Here, the clause that starts with “Including” is a fragment, though we can guess that it’s a list of birds included in the study. However, since there’s no reason to use a sentence fragment here, it would be better to remove the period and join the clauses with a comma:

The study examined several species, including canaries, budgies and doves.

The most important thing is that every sentence has a main clause including a subject and verb, but watch out for other sentences that seem unfinished or ambiguous throughout your work.

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