As a writer you’ve probably noticed that the way we write and the way we speak are often very different. And one of the ways our written language differs from our spoken language lies in the completeness of our thoughts.
When we speak, we rarely take the time to make sure all of our sentences are complete and grammatical. Quite often, we throw out related fragments of ideas and expect our listeners to combine those with context, vocal intonation, facial expressions, and gestures to reconstruct our meaning.
However, when we write, all we have to communicate with readers are our words, so we’re much more careful to form complete and complex sentences. But is there a place for sentence fragments in our writing?
As with most other questions relating to writing, it depends.
What is a complete sentence?
First of all, let’s clear up the difference between a complete sentence and a sentence fragment. If we're going to break rules, we have to know what they are first.
There have been whole chapters, if not books, on sentence construction, but I won’t go into too much detail here. This is just a brief overview.
A complete sentence contains two essential ingredients: a subject and a verb. Depending on the verb, a direct object may or may not be needed to make the sentence grammatical, but the subject and verb are the basic building blocks of a sentence.
Bob dropped the book.
There are a ton of other elements that can be added in to flesh out a thought and make the sentence more complex, but they’re optional details after you have the basics.
There are instances, like imperative sentences (commands), where the subject seems to be missing, but it’s still there, just implied.
What is a sentence fragment?
A sentence fragment is just that: a broken piece of a sentence. It’s missing either the subject or the verb or both.
The dog shredded the whole roll of toilet paper. Racing around and barking. Toilet paper confetti! Everywhere!
We use sentence fragments all the time in our daily speech. Can you imagine how tedious it would be if we only ever spoke in complete sentences?
The dog shredded the whole roll of toilet paper. He was racing around and barking. It was like toilet paper confetti! It was everywhere!
When is it OK to use fragments in your writing?
As you can probably see, making every sentence grammatically correct and complete gives your writing a more formal tone. Therefore, if you want a more formal tone, you would lean more toward complete sentences, right?
So, if you’re writing academic, scholarly, or scientific articles and books, you’d work to avoid sentence fragments. It’s what your peers in the field would expect, and you might find it difficult to get them to take you seriously if your writing is peppered with incomplete bits of thoughts.
However, if you’re writing in a less formal field aimed at the general public—such as fiction or creative nonfiction—not only are your readers more forgiving, but they’ll actually engage more if you take on a more relaxed, conversational tone.
Don’t overdo it, though. Using too many fragments can make your writing choppy and difficult to understand and follow.
The key is intentionality. Know your intended audience and their expectations, and adapt your writing to fit them, whether that means you’re having a relaxed chat or laying out a complex theory.
Rebecca Miller is a professional copyeditor and general fan of all things having to do with the written word and the English language.
You can check out her website at Oakdale Editing or connect through Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Email.
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Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.