Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Sentence Fragment

When you (or I, or anyone in the halls of collegiate glory) write, we write to convey complete thoughts to a special somebody—for you here at PSU, that special somebody is probably an academic audience: classmates and professors in particular. Those complete thoughts can only properly be expressed in complete sentence. Pesky partial sentences that obscure meaning and irritate audiences are known as “sentence fragments”, and they make your thinking itself seem fragmented even when it’s not. Here are a few general guidelines that will help you on your way to expressing your brilliance with completeness and clarity.

To start, it’s important to remember exactly what a sentence requires in order to be complete: a sentence must have a subject (that is, something that is “doing” something) and a verb (that which is being done). It may include other, more complicated elements, but they are not necessarily required. A complete sentence, then, might look like this: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. If we forget to include the subject, we have a fragment: *Jumped over the lazy dog. Likewise, forgetting the verb and the bits that accompany it also creates a fragment: *The quick brown fox. These aren’t good sentences because if we look at them by themselves, we have no idea what’s really going on.

This kind of fragment is easy to fix. Read the ‘sentence’ slowly (and independently), and look for missing information. If we see *Jumped over the lazy dog, we just need to think about what or who did the jumping; if we just see *The quick brown fox, we must ask what the fox did. Then, we fill these spaces in for our readers, and all is right in the grammar world.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. That simple, easy fix works for simple, easy fragments—fragments where a specific piece of required information is missing. There are other kinds of ‘sentences’ that may have both a subject and a verb but are still fragments. The nitty-gritty here is that a sentence, technically, is as we have defined it (Subject + Verb [+] extra bits). However, something that has a subject and a verb might not be a sentence. There exists, in the confusing world of language and grammar, a beast called a “clause.” A clause is any group of words that has a subject and a verb, whether it counts as a sentence or not. What you need to know about clauses to avoid sentence fragments is that there are “Independent Clauses” and “Dependent Clauses,” and that they each play a different role in sentence formation.

The Independent Clause is the ‘main’ clause—that is, it’s the one that represents a complete thought and stands all by its lonesome as a sentence. An example of an Independent Clause might be I like people. That might be all the information you want to get across to your audience (even though it is a little vague). If we want to qualify our complete idea to make it clear that we don’t mean all people, all the time, we would use a Dependent Clause, such as: when they bring me cookies. Together, we have another complete sentence: I like people when they bring me cookies. The Dependent Clause has no life of its own,
though. We can’t just say *When they bring me cookies and expect someone to understand what we mean—the information in this clause “depends” upon the information in the Independent Clause for its existence.

Often, key words occur at the beginning of a Dependent Clause, and these will help us determine if our sentence is really a sentence, or if it’s just a lonely fragment looking for another clause to hang out with. Words such as after, although, because, before, if, since, unless, until, when, whether, while and who (among others) indicate that the clause that follows requires an Independent Clause to make complete sense. Frequently the cause for this kind of fragment is improper punctuation—many people insert a period after their Independent Clause (probably because it is a complete sentence), and move on to the Dependent Clause as though it, too, was complete. That means that, as the reader goes along, all the appropriate bits may be there:
I couldn’t finish my history paper. *Because studying for my geometry midterm
took over ten hours.

If we pay close attention, we can gather what this means, but grammatically the
second ‘sentence’ doesn’t work—it’s a fragment, a Dependent Clause that has been
estranged from its Independent friend, and it can cause a reader to stumble over
the intended meaning.

A solution to this kind of sentence fragment is simply to determine where (or what, if it happens to be missing) the Independent Clause is so that we can reunite it with the Dependent one. In the example above, it’s easy, because the Independent Clause comes immediately before our fragment. All we have to do, then, is reconsider what kind of punctuation to use. We will definitely take out the period:
I couldn’t finish my history paper, because studying for my geometry test took over ten hours.
In the example above, about people who bring me cookies, we didn’t need a comma
to unite the two clauses, we just needed to squeeze them together into a single
sentence. The punctuation we choose will be dependent upon many different factors—all that is important, at least in terms of avoiding fragments, is that
we don’t place a period in between the Independent and Dependent Clause.

The sentence fragment is a dangerous thing to have in your writing—it may obscure your meaning or just drop information from your otherwise clear sentences. As you progress in academic writing, it becomes more and more important to aim for clarity and completeness. As your thoughts get more and more complex, it will be tough enough to grasp the genius of your philosophy without having to guess at the meaning of your sentences. Hopefully, these hints will help you find and fix fragments, and turn them into real sentences.

1 comment:

Matt said...

At first, I thought the line breaks were part of some stylistic effort to hammer home this lesson via witty use of a provocative parlor trick.

But now...

You've taken it all away from me!

No line breaks. No shattering of conventional expectations.

I feel thrown around. Toyed with. Lied to?

What does this all mean? Great job! I loved reading about fragments.