Explaining the pitfalls of sentence fragments

One of the most ubiquitous grammar traps in English is the sentence fragment.

Essential writing fuel!

A sentence fragment is a phrase or set of phrases that look like they should be a sentence, but actually aren’t. Usually that’s because they lack either a verb or a subject, making them a ‘dependent clause’, because they depend on another clause (which is missing) to make sense. A true sentence is known as an ‘independent clause’ because it makes sense by itself – typically, it has both a subject and a verb,which describes action on the subject.

To my mind the only practical use of a sentence fragment is in a heading, where the incomplete nature of the phrase draws the reader to look at the article. A lot of headings are deliberately written that way, including the one above.

That also shows what’s wrong with a sentence fragment. It works as a headline, but as a sentence it’s missing a subject. To be a true sentence, it would need to read: ‘This article explains the pitfalls of sentence fragments’. Or it could have a different subject – let’s say ‘interest’. Thus it could also read: ‘Explaining the pitfalls of sentence fragments is interesting’.

Technically this headline example is known as a ‘verb fragment’, because it contains the verb but not the subject of the action. That’s another headline trick – using the verb fragment means the headline has a drive and action to it. Slogans often do it too.

However, that’s not so useful when a sentence fragment pops up inside the main text, which is why it’s better to avoid them in everyday written English.

The other place sentence fragments regularly appear is in corporate mission statements. Again, they are usually verb fragments, but with a difference. As far as I can tell they emerge from group discussions among ‘teams’ who are wrestling to bring diverse ideas into a single sentence, ideally incorporating one or two corporate buzzwords, so they can show how they’ve ‘got with the programme’. This can lead to hilarious mis-use of wording. Imagine an organisation that’s told its staff they are ‘empowered’ by ‘total quality management’ in order to meet the corporate values of ‘engagement’, ‘granularity’ and ‘excellence’. The resulting ‘bottom up’ mission statement (which I just made up) is:

‘Empowering total quality management to engage granular excellence ’.

That’s what happens when something’s written by committee, and what emerges is whatever compromise is least disagreed with. But even if this agglomeration of stupid corporate buzzwords had some sort of meaning, it’s still a sentence fragment and thus lacks a subject.

This sort of misfire is also a problem with some written English, even for experienced writers – the author knows what they mean, and misses the fact that they’ve mis-phrased the sentence because, as always, the writer is their own worst proof-reader.

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Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


7 thoughts on “Explaining the pitfalls of sentence fragments

      1. So do I. And they’re handy in dialogue, emulating the way we speak – which often isn’t just sentence fragments as shattered bits, which somehow seem to work verbally even if they look terrible written down!

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  1. There are still things I miss as a writer, often on purpose. On my blog I’ve ignored active/passive voice for years. Working in marketing, most businesses rage about active voice. Sometimes there’s no real difference, I find.
    Then there’s “superfluous” words. I use “actually” sometimes to emphasise a point. The same with “just”. Or stating “very” difficult instead of just “difficult”.
    Perhaps one should refine one’s approach if one is to ever got a literary agent.

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