Monday, June 30, 2008

Sentences and Fragments

I'm tossing this out for you all. I want you to look at your current manuscript and find a passage where you used a sentence fragment, and tell why. I'm asking this because of course, blah blah, bad, sentence fragments, but I also know how, when we're in voice, we often use fragments for effect, for rhythm, for characterization. So maybe you can give examples of fragments you kept, and ones you fixed (attaching to another sentence, say) in revision. And why did you keep the one and fix the other? How do they differ?

Another problem I have is explaining to my students what makes a fragment. Now, understand, if they've gotten to college and don't know what a sentence is, they aren't, um, necessarily absorbing the lessons well. But I find myself saying things like, "A sentence expresses a full thought," when you and I know that "I did" is just as much a sentence as "Charcot was the first neurologist, setting up practice in Paris in 1860 and serving as a major influence for Freud." So how would you define sentence and fragment? I throw up my hands and think if you have to ask, you'll never know.


Anonymous said...

First of all, I have to admit to being a lover of fragments. My first drafts always contain many more fragments than later drafts, though. I use them for two reasons: 1. to convey action and/or confusion that reigns in a POV character's mind when something unexpected or catastrophic happens, 2. to set a really short sentence off against a paragraph of longer, 'proper' sentences.

An examaple of the first from my current WIP:

The next thing Cory heard was running footsteps. The door flung open. Hit the wall in a tremendous thud. People ran in. Many of them. Boots crunched over glass.

In this paragraph, I actually changed the first sentence, which originally was also a fragment (containing only the last two words). I changed it because after a scene shuffle, this paragraph ended up being the first in a chapter. At the end of the previous chapter, there was a massive explosion. I needed to re-connect with the POV character, because all sorts of things start happening and it will be at least ten lines before his name gets mentioned again. I don't want to leave the chapter POV-less for that long.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

For me, and what I taught my own students back in my TA days of English Comp, Fragments aren't complete. They don't make the reader feel satisfied, like a Cheeburger without fries and a shake (and trust me, with a Cheeburger, you need the shake). When you read fragments out loud, they are annoying. Those are the bad kind.

Stylistic fragments work because they are satisfying. They complete a mood or establish voice.

Since you asked for an example, this was posted on my blog last month. There are a couple in here.

There was no sigh that showed she didn't want to be responsible for me. No nothing. Just straight matter-of-fact, no big deal. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was easier than letting me be in the wrong place when the band came out. They might get a big laugh out of the record label rep who had to follow the band to get to where she belonged, or they might go ballistic that I wasn't in my place. They were, after all, the band. I worked for them, and this one in particular wasn't one you pissed off or fucked around with. Not if you want to hang on to your job.

Ian said...

I just skimmed through the six pages I wrote last night and only found a half dozen fragments (by Micro$oft Word's standards). Five of those were in dialogue, which I'm fine with, because lots of people don't always speak in complete sentences, i.e.: “She never touched you. Some kind of whatchamacallit. Tele-something.”

The sixth fragment was a single-sentence paragraph, used for emphasis after the preceding paragraph:

“Crap,” I muttered. I hadn’t dealt with many parahumans in my time on the force. That was more my daughter’s style. She’d inherited all of my strength and toughness and none of my common sense. She ran around with a group of like-minded incredibly young twentysomethings and fought what she liked to call The Good Fight. They called themselves the Young Guns and were loved by the young, fresh, hip kids of the Bay Area and only tolerated by the rest of us. If I’d have been a weaker man, I might have pushed off this problem on them. Let the superheroes deal with the weird green telekinetic girl. Grimes and I could go on to answer a noise complaint that had come in half an hour ago and, as usual, got kicked aside in favor of higher priority calls.

In this case, criminal trespassing.

In some narratives I'll use fragments intentionally more often, especially if I'm trying to establish a quick, choppy voice like in my cyberpunk novel in progress, but by and large I like to write (and read) sentences that have a subject AND a verb. :)


PatriciaW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PatriciaW said...

When I think of fragments, I think of three kinds: (1) where the subject is implied but not specified; (2) prepositional phrases; and (3) nouns by themselves, often an exclamation.

Example of the first:
Jill entered the closed. Poked around a bit. Turned and left.

The implied subject in the last two sentences, of course, is Jill. But if those sentences are removed from context, they become incomplete because the subject is unknown.

Example of the second:

She always left on her left side. While she was pregant. Even when she wasn't.

Bad example, yes, but you get the point. All of the above could be abbreviated into a single sentence but there's a rhythm here that might work for the story.

Third example:
She hated when Caroline drank the last of the milk. Milk she'd brought with her hard earned money and had been saving. The nerve!

Whether they're good fragments or not depends on what the author is trying to do and whether this particular device is well executed. I often find fragments in instrospection or narrative but could be in dialogue too, to differentiate a character. But sometimes I find myself wanting to help the author join two or more fragments and make one good sentence.

Kimber Chin said...

I'm the queen of sentence fragments. Verbs? Blah. Who needs them? I think it comes from too many blog posts and chatroom conversations.

Jordan McCollum said...

This may not be helpful to your students, who were brought up in an age of "oh, we don't need to teach kids grammar, they know it innately!" BUT the most basic definition of a sentence is a phrase with both a subject and a predicate (properly conjugated verb & accouterments).

Most "good" sentence fragments are just predicates, as we've seen in the above examples. They only work when the subject is clear.

I see these a lot in letters and emails (love letters, come to think of it, which makes me a horrible person, wanting to correct sweet nothings).

EX: So you think it's time we moved in together. That I have to commit to you. My friends from college are all married now. Hating themselves for what they are. But I want to hold you. To kiss you. To marry you.

Horrors! I find myself putting these same types of fragments in interior monologue—but I think it's effective there because, as I learned from letters, this is the way that we really think.

Sentence fragments that you should ALWAYS avoid, however, are usually found when the author forgets what they started to say or how they started the sentence.

EX: As she walked through the garden, smelling the flowers and pondering the weightiness of eternity, a vague feeling of ennui descending over her because this was a singularly boring pursuit.

A very long sentence fragment. (Hey, that's a fragment, too.) Change "descending" to "descended" and it's not a fragment anymore. Add "she decided to kill herself" to the end and it's not a fragment anymore.

There are lots of subjects and verbs in there, and lots of "thoughts," but all of them fall under the first clause. The way the verbs are conjugated now, all of them are part of an adverbial (I believe)--they're not the subject. They're just additions to the "complete thought" that a sentence has to create.

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, I like your thought that fragments with predicates are most easily acceptable. I suspect that fragments that -follow- the previous sentence predicate will also sound right.

He didn't know her name. Her family. Her past.

I tell my students that subject/predicate=sentence equation, but the smarter ones (frankly, if they're so smart, why can't they write better, huh?) point out that "Although she was only 12" has both a subject and a predicate. "But that makes it a CLAUSE, you see, and the 'although' makes it a dependent clause... you need an independent clause to make a sentence." Groan. It's hard.

Natalie Hatch said...

Now Alicia, I'm never going to finish this latest WIP because you keep getting me to edit and then I go 'Oh I can improve that..." blah blah blah.
Here's a fragment, it's dialogue though so I thought it was ok.

‘Hells bells no. They taste disgusting.’
‘Go, get some food. It’ll do you good.’

So I've been scrolling through the text going 'another fragment? Blimmin heck'

Edittorrent said...

Natalie, I think that the main rule in dialogue is... make it sound authentic, so fragments would be fine if they sounded right.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes find fragments after an edit session because I forget to change the gerand to a verb [ing to ed]. It's an easy slip. Well worth watching out for the green squiggles that Word kindly adds. [assumed subject fragment. :-) ]