Myth Buster: Replace Fragments with Complete Sentences
“Always write in complete sentences,” is an axiom proclaimed by most English teachers, and they are diligent to point out every fragment they find in student papers.
Aside: Have you noticed the tendency of writing teachers to mark sentence fragments with the abbreviation FRAG? Usually in red letters. All caps. Sometimes with an exclamation point. Isn’t it a bit ironic, perhaps hypocritical, to tell a student he has not used a complete sentence with an editorial note that isn’t even a complete word? Just a thought.
But is it really a grammatical crime to sprinkle an occasional fragment into your prose? Don’t seasoned writers, even award-winning authors, employ fragments on occasion? Why must every thought include a subject and a predicate? Why can’t I communicate a partial thought if I so desire?
The truth is, even WriteAtHome writing coaches differ on this question. Some are sticklers. Others overlook an occasional fragment. (None of them should be doing the FRAG! thing, however.)
To date, I have avoided issuing a formal position on this and most other issues of grammar/usage. This is because I don’t want to be black-and-white about an issue that isn’t black-and-white. But I think it’s time to address it. (Writing coaches, are you paying attention?)
So here it is — the Official WriteAtHome Position on the Use of Fragments:
It’s okay. Sometimes.
Sorry. I told you I didn’t think it’s a black-and-white issue. So, the only thing I’m going to be black-and-white about is that it’s not okay to be black-and-white.
Writing teachers should never tell students to never use fragments, as though this is a universally accepted rule of usage. It’s not. There is no authoritative body to make such a declaration. And so many gifted writers have ignored the complete sentence command for so long that there is just no credibility in saying it ought never be done.
Now for the judicious other side. I am not suggesting that we abandon the very concept of complete sentences. Generally, students are better off writing in complete sentences that have always been recognized as “grammatically correct.” I’m just saying there ought to be some exceptions made.
Here are some general principles for when to accept or encourage the use of sentence fragments:
1. When the usage is intentional. Accidentally leaving out a simple subject because you don’t know any better is not a good reason for including a fragment. It’s no reason at all. That’s the point. If you want to insert a fragment, you need a reason. For example, I included a few in the “note” paragraph above. I liked the rhythmic, casual way it explained how teachers mark fragments. It’s not humorous exactly, but I think it’s winsome and conversational. Whether you agree or not, those are reasons.
A note for teachers: A rule you might employ on first drafts is to ask students to underline or otherwise indicate any fragments that they intend to include. That way you’ll know whether they are accidental or on purpose.
2. When they are appropriate to the purpose of the paper. Because fragments are still considered improper in some circles, it’s best to avoid them in formal papers where your writing may be judged by grammar sticklers. Standardized test essays, cover letters, and job application essays are good examples.
3. When the paper is creative or aesthetic. Writing is an art and, in art, rules are often broken. If clear communication is more important than art and cleverness, stick to complete sentences. But if the context gives you room to play with language, feel free to fragmentalize as you wish.
4. When it works. There’s no rule for this. Sometimes a fragment is the perfect way to express your thought. Other times, it’s just a distraction or a stumbling block to the reader. Don’t force it. This is a matter of a good ear. Writing teachers should develop their ear for this kind of thing. In a future post, I’ll provide a more detailed look with some examples.
5. When it is occasional. Like any artistic touch, too much of it is just annoying. Any fragments you choose to use should be infrequent.
And thus we arrive at the happy midddle ground. Sentence fragments should be permitted, but only under certain circumstances. Writing teachers of the world: no more knee-jerking when you spot a fragment. Give it some thought before you whip out the red-ink pen.
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