I used to read a popular ‘early readers’ series to my son when he was very young. The stories were based in well-researched history, which I absolutely loved.
They were larded with sentence fragments, which drove me crazy.
So the text might read:
“The children walked to the tower. In the rain. With a buffalo following them all the way.”
Aaargh! I didn’t mind reading them to Jim because I could speak the words in ways that blended them into complete sentences. I didn’t want him to read them to himself, because he’d be absorbing models that were incorrect and that are hard, once internalized, to unlearn.
Oh, it’s a gift if we can absorb that sense of sentence from a young age!
In scoring standardized sixth-grade writing tests, I had to look for the presence of sentence fragments and run-on sentences. Too many could sink a poor young student’s grade.
I found the same criteria (‘Incidence of improperly formed sentences: comma splices, run-ons, and fragments’) on the placement exam my college uses to determine in which level of English a new student is placed.
This is a case where we have to know the rules before we can break the rules. There are times, I believe (along with the writer of that children’s series, although she definitely, in my august opinion, overdoes it), when a fragment is just the right bouquet of words to scent our writing…but we have to know when, how, and where to use it. And we need to temper its use with discretion.
So…here’s a little fragment and run-on review.
‘Incomplete sentence’ is another term for sentence fragment. Something is missing. It could be a noun or a verb–all sentences, after all, need at least one of each.
We use fragments all the time in conversation:
“What are you doing for dinner?”
“Ordering pizza!” (MUCH of the predicate part of the sentence is here; the subject has gone missing, however.)
In conversation, we mentally fill in the missing, “We are…” In writing, unless we’re writing dialogue, we’d probably better include it.
How about this?
“Who told you you could use my laptop?”
“Mom!” (The subject part of the sentence is intact; the verb, completely missing.
It IS possible for a fragment to have both a verb and a subject and still be incomplete. This occurs when we punctuate a dependent clause as if it were a complete sentence.
Imagine this exchange:
“When are you going to send me that approval?”
“When the hot spot freezes over.” (The hot spot is the subject; freezes is the verb. But the presence of that little word ‘when’ makes the the clause dependent on more words for its meaning to be complete.)
We all had to learn the KINDS of sentences English allows us at some point or another, I’m guessing. So we learned there are statements–our logical, predictable work-horse sentences. We know that questions often flip the order of subject and verb, and, of course, end in question marks. There are,— oh, INDEED, there are—exclamations!!!
Then there are commands.
Commands LOOK like fragments: the subject (you) is often missing.
We use these a lot in writing instructions or recipes:
Turn the spigot until the water gushes.
Mix the egg mixture into the dry ingredients.
The subject is you, and it’s implied rather than included. We consider these complete sentences.
I almost hesitate to even discuss run-on sentences; there’s a difference between British and American English here that’s impossible to reconcile. But I’ll tell you what we taught in English classes in American schools, and invite your thoughts on other forms and constructions.
Students, I’ve found, come into college English classes with the idea that a ‘run-on’ sentence is one that is way too long—but that is not always the case. A run-on occurs when two (or more) complete sentences–independent clauses–are linked incorrectly.
I ate the bacon I ate the lettuce I ate the tomato.
Clearly, that’s a run-on.
I ate the bacon, I ate the lettuce, I ate the tomato.
In American English, this is also a run-on (British English friends?) of the comma splice variety. There are two fixes:
1. Link the independent clauses with semi-colons.
I ate the bacon; I ate the lettuce; I ate the tomato.
2. Construct as a series, using ‘and’.
I ate the bacon, I ate the lettuce, and I ate the tomato.
A short sentence could also be a run-on.
I am you are too.
There’s a mere twelve letters, but it’s a run-on, nonetheless.
Another section of the standardized test rubric looks for sentence variety–different constructions and different lengths, the use of phrases and clauses and connectors. If we march out a battery of subject-verb-objects/subject-verb-objects/subject-verb-objects, the flow is predictable and annoying. Sentence variety, well and thoughtfully chosen, can make our writing float and flow. But that’s a subject for another day’s discussion.
I always told my students, “I don’t care if you know the name of the construction, as long as you correctly USE the construction.” Reading good literature, children absorb the cadence and flow of good sentence structure. They may not know how to define ‘complete sentence,’ but they know one when they read one. And they learn to detect when a sentence has a problem, too.
The time to introduce offbeat, unconventional forms is probably well AFTER that sentence sense is formed.
It’s hard, in the heat of the writing moment, to catch our own sentence errors, so I find it’s always good to draft my words and let them cool. When I return, I can try to read them with a stranger’s eyes, and the fragments or run-ons float to the surface; I snatch them up, wring them out, and put them back aright.
And there it is, the written product: complete, unfragmented, totally independent. Ahhh…life is good.
Happy blogging, my friends!