Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sentence fragments redux

Really, I have no problem with the well-placed and effective and infrequent sentence fragment. But as with every grammar exception, I think, it should be the exception, not the rule. The fragment should be used for emphasis of some kind, not as just another variety of sentence. So when I revise or edit, I often re-hook a fragment to the thought-sentence adjacent, or if the fragment is really its own thought, make it into a full sentence. The occasional fragments which add emphasis or punctuation or voice-verisimilitude will have far more effect when they stand out as unusual.

This comes to mind because I'm reading a very good book with very many unnecessary fragments-- an average of one per paragraph. It's non-fiction, so the fragments do not reflect the voice of a mentally unstable or uneducated or broken-spirited character. And the author is an experienced writer, and the publisher a major one (the majorest, prob), and the subject is Shakespeare, so the incessant fragmentation does not fit the situation either. In fact, as generously as I'm reading, I cannot find any reason for a fragment-per-paragraph.

Anyway, this is a good book. In fact, I'm going to get a couple extra copies to give to friends. However, all these fragments have driven me to stop reading and write a blog post.) (Probably the author was not aiming for this result. :)

So here are some examples from a terrific chapter about the issues raised by the variation of endings of Lear between the Quarto and the Folio. (Really, this is fascinating.) But to the fragments, away!

Or do they represent different stages in the evolution of Shakespeare as an artist and thus different versions that are both, in a way, Shakespearian? If it was he who made the change.

Note the assumption by Shapiro that Shakespeare himself would have seen things Shapiro's way: that his original draft was "incoherent" and that he had to make a choice between "the integrity of his character and his plot". That Shakespeare preferred conventional revenge-plot simplification to anything too "dark and existential."

"She's dead as earth," he says in both versions as he sets her body down and calls out for a mirror. One he can hold up to his daughter's lips in a desperate effort to see, "If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/Why then she lives."

Here's a sentence fragment leading to a sentence fragment-- and across a different paragraph than the original sentence whose thought they together complete (that is, they belong in the same paragraph, I think):

*long but coherent sentence, ending with:
...and one of them (the conversations) has remained in my mind.
(New paragraph) Remained because it had an important effect on my thinking back then, and because of the way it can historicize, let's say, the fascinationg trajectory of Greenblatt's own thinking. His thinking about Shakespeare as an author.

Now when I try to plumb the author's intent as he tries to plumb Shakespeare's (and I think neither of us thinks that "author intent" should be controlling, yet here we are), I figure that he wanted to avoid making his sentences too long. But I don't think that's a good reason for fragments. First, in the case of a too-long sentence, the solution is making another sentence, not a fragment. Second, this is an academic book, and long sentences are not verboten in academic prose, goodness knows. Third, the sentences intact would have been long but coherent, as they start with the main clause (almost always the simplest construction for a long sentence, and one that can clarify almost any addition of modifying clauses and phrases).

So that last one -- there's no reason "remained" has to be a fragment. Let's make it a real sentence:
..and one of them (the conversations) has remained in my mind.
(New paragraph) This remained because it had an important effect on my thinking back then, and because of the way it can historicize, let's say, the fascinationg trajectory of Greenblatt's own thinking. His thinking about Shakespeare as an author.

Don't like the repetition? Neither do I. Here's what I'd actually do (also obliterating the dumb repetition of "his thinking" and the split of a thought into two paragraphs).

...One conversation has remained in my mind ever since because it had an important effect on my thinking back then, and because it can historicize, let's say, the fascinationg trajectory of Greenblatt's own thinking about Shakespeare as an author.
(Then I'd start a new paragraph for his discussion of the situation of the conversation and another about the specifics.)

It's a long sentence, and it can be broken up if necessary. (I might break between the "me" effects and the "him" effects-- "And it can historicize..." Yes, you can start a sentence with "and". The "because" is okay in the long sentence, but here it would cause a fragment (And because it can historicize, let's say, the fascinationg trajectory of Greenblatt's own thinking about Shakespeare as an author.FRAGMENT!) "And" is a coordinating conjunction and works with independent clauses (independent clauses can be complete sentences on their own), so "and" wouldn't make that a fragment. But "because" is a subordinating conjunction and creates a dependent clause, and dependent clauses must be hooked to an independent clause to form a full sentence. (I will post again my Clauses schemata if anyone asks.)

The "his thinking" -- I really don't get the author's thinking on this one. This is just an explanation of what thinking he's talking about in the sentence, so why not put it in the sentence?

Here's another where the repetition is unnecessary, and so is the fragmentation:

"She's dead as earth," he says in both versions as he sets her body down and calls out for a mirror to hold up to his daughter's lips in a desperate effort to see, "If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/Why then she lives."

Too long a sentence? Okay, but don't break it at the mirror. (Break, mirror-- I'm so clever. :) Break it between the speech and the action:
"She's dead as earth," he says in both versions. Then he sets her body down and calls out for a mirror to hold up to his daughter's lips in a desperate effort to see, "If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/Why then she lives."

That way each sentence has a coherent and complete thought-- Here is what he says. Here is what he does.

Now as I said, this is a GOOD book. So please don't let this make you not want to buy the book. It's good enough that I'm almost able to ignore the fragments. Almost. (See? I can do fragments!)

Let's look at the others, and I'll say how I'd edit them, were I editing this for Super Major Publisher.

Or do they represent different stages in the evolution of Shakespeare as an artist and thus different versions that are both, in a way, Shakespearian? If it was he who made the change.

This I understand. The fragment IS a conclusion, a caveat, and should be emphasized. However, I think a dash would be more emphatic, as it adds the note of interruption, of undermining. Let's see:
Or do they represent different stages in the evolution of Shakespeare as an artist and thus different versions that are both, in a way, Shakespearian-- if it was he who made the change.

Can't you almost hear the portentous pause there, the slight cackle before the subversive suggestion that this might not be Shakespeare's change at all? (He makes it clear that this IS subversive, even dangerous. :) Yes, there's the problem of the missing question mark, but I like the flatness imposed on the whole sentence by adding that caveat, so I'd want the question mark gone anyway. The "if" is sort of a superior question, overwhelming and undermining the first.

The trouble with a too-easy resort to fragments is that that can keep the author from trying out other constructions that might accomplish more than simple fragmentation. The dash both connects and divides, and that's a terrific effect, and, I think, just right for this thought. If the author has an instinctive "try again" whenever he considered a fragment, he might have found another, more effective construction. Just sayin'. (That's not truly a fragment, btw, though I would like it to be so I come across as more wild and free. It's really an elliptical sentence, as the subject "I" and the auxiliary "am" are implied. But I think that implication makes for a fragment. I mean, most fragments have implied sentence elements missing.)

Finally, here's a paragraph where I think fragmentation works, but I'd actually ADD a sentence fragment, so that-- well, I don't know. It just seems like two fragments makes for a better rhythm. Let's see:
Note the assumption by Shapiro that Shakespeare himself would have seen things Shapiro's way: That the original draft was "incoherent". That Shakespeare had to make a choice between "the integrity of his character and his plot". That he preferred conventional revenge-plot simplification to anything too "dark and existential."

I moved "Shakespeare" to my first fragment and "he" to the second (reversing them) and changed "his" to "the" in the first "that clause" because "he/his" could conceivably refer to "Shapiro/Shapiro's". Also I capped the first "That" after the colon. The general rule is you cap if what follows a colon is a complete sentence. But since there are fragments following, starting the same way, and those "Thats" are capped... well, really, I have three fragments as sentences following the colon, so I'd keep the capitalization coherent. Hey, sin boldly.

Anyway, the fragmentation here emphasizes the three problems the author has with Shapiro's assumptions. The colon (which starts a list) and the parallel structure emphasizes the emphasis, and also make the construction of the paragraph more formal (appropriate for academic publications). So I guess sin not-so-boldly. ;)

So... if you fragment a lot, challenge yourself. (Clearly, you cannot assume an editor is going to fix it for you.)
-First, recognize that this is a fragment. This is really essential. Fragments should be recognized. They can sometimes work, but they shouldn't be there because you can't distinguish a complete sentence from a fragment.

-Second, decide if this is intentional or accidental. If intentional, determine what your intention is. If accidental, well, accidents are meant to be fixed.

-Third, see what you're breaking up here. Is it a thought, a description, an explanation? If it's two thoughts you're breaking, consider if it would be better to have each thought a separate sentence, to give them each the weight of thought. If you're breaking a description or explanation (especially breaking a modifier off from the modified noun), connect it back and try breaking the sentence somewhere else. Modifiers usually belong with the word modified.

-Fourth, check for repetition. Repetition is often useful for clarity and for rhythm, but beware of creating the necessity for repetition merely to create a fragment. When you start a fragment with a repetition of one of the later words in the last sentence, that's a sign that you can probably adjoin it to the complete sentence without the repeated word.

-Fifth, if you want the fragmented thought separate, see if it can easily be made into a complete sentence. Try the legal workarounds (like the dash above). Experiment with different ways of presenting this and choose among them. Don't resort to fragments just because they're easy.
The most annoying fragments in my experience are relative clauses (the most common relative clauses begin with the relative pronouns
who or which, and these are truly the most annoying of fragments). The pronouns that start a relative clause create a dependent clause, but those pronouns can be replaced with other pronouns that create an independent clause (complete sentence), and there's usually no reason not to do that. (Very occasionally, yes, I like to go with who or which for emphasis or to replicate the voice of the character, but again, those aims are not achieved when I often use this form of fragmentation. Less is more. Less is more. Less is more. Talk about repetition. :)
Here you go-- examples.
Which was the reason she'd divorced him.
This (or that) was the reason she'd divorced him. (Still a pronoun, but a demonstrative one, pointing back to the previous sentence, but also giving this sentence its very own subject.)
Who never had a chance to win her back.
He never had a chance to win her back.

Finally, if you think this is a justifiable fragment, one that adds to your meaning in some way and can't be done better in a sentence, do it well. Do it infrequently, so that when you do, the fragmentation stands out and creates some meaning beyond "I don't know what a sentence is." Do it judiciously-- decide where the fragment should begin in order to create the meaning you want. And do it with a thought to rhythm, to sound, and to situation. You might find that a series or pair of fragments gives more power and coherence than just one. (With a pair or series, parallel structure can emphasize the connection.)

Fragmentation is not an excuse for laziness. Rather, fragmenting a sentence, like any breaking of rules, should be done for a purpose, and done well, and create a result that's better than following the rule would create.

Alicia

14 comments:

Murphy said...

Rather, fragmenting a sentence, like any breaking of rules, should be done for a purpose, and done well, and create a result that's better than following the rule would create.

Could an example of when fragmenting works be when you detail the actions or state-of-mind of your character? Say, when they're in a frantic situation or losing touch with their own reality? Otherwise, I'd be thinking that it's just not necessary. Hmm, I guess I'm asking - what other times would fragmenting work besides conveying being or state of being?

Murphy

Babs said...

Wow Alicia! Brilliant post!

Murphy, are you saying that fragments might enhance some scenes? I would think you have to be consistent in style thoughout your work. Else wise you'd lose the flow of your prose, wouldn't you? Alicia?

John Harper said...

Alicia, regarding your steps at the end of the post, I'm afraid i fall down on the first one: Identification. If MS Word doesn't see it as a fragment, neither do I.

I fragment all over the place, all the time. But at least I don't do who, which fragments!

John Harper said...

Hi Murphy

When I'm not using fragments unintentionally, I do use them to suggest a hurried frame of mind. Example: My hero has ten minutes to repair his engines before he slams into obstacles, so he is racing, failing, despairing, not thinking fully formed thoughts, so he is fragmenting like there is no tomorrow.

I said before i don't do 'which' fragments, but just as im editing my story, I found myself do one:

"Lee continued at full burn. He’d have to flip to decelerate at some point. Which gave Scott an opening."

It was instinctive for me to write it that way. And I would have left it that way if not for this post. Now I have to think about it.

I would actually like to leave it that way as its a statement the hero is saying to himself, to make him think he has a chance, to motivate himself. I think it works. I could just replace the full stop with a comma, but then the focus is lost.

Alicia, what do you think?

Murphy said...

Yes, Babs, I'm saying that fragments could enhance a particular scene. Suppose your writing mirrors a character's frame of mind. He starts off sane - thinking in coherent and complete thoughts then starts losing his mind as the story progresses wouldn’t his thoughts become fragmented? Even the way he perceives the things around him would be detailed this way. What about someone who's drunk or drugged in a scene, but doesn't know it? Couldn't the writer convey with fragmented thoughts or perceptions, their character's state of mind without stating the obvious right off? I think so.

Hi John: I think if there's a purpose to it - like with your example, it's fluidity of your character’s reality, right? His motion in the moment. It can work to get the reader deeper into your character’s head and that can be very effective. However, when it’s used too often - with no concrete purpose, it loses its polish and specialness and becomes more a style than a tool.
Just my .02
Murphy :D

Babs said...

Are you sure, Murphy? I can see fragments written into dialogue, but I don't know about the rest. I've never thought about a character deteriorating into being disjointed. The fact that you have doesn't surprise me.:)
John: I don't see anything wrong with your example. I like the way it's written. :)

Edittorrent said...

Yes, I can see using fragments to convey a frantic set of actions, or a disordered state of mind. But if you do fragments in scenes where those are not a dominant factor, then the fragmentation won't have the meaning.

So confine that to the character POV or action scenes which require it.

What if the whole book is told from the POV of a disorderly mind. Well, I don't know. There's always a tradeoff, and you might lose a lot of readers who just can't stick with it. There's a major mystery writer everyone else loves, but his prose to me feels staccato and jarring, and I just can't read more than a page. (I'm in the minority here.)

But if the character voice works, it works. You can have fragmented sentences without annoyance-- I mean, I think it can be done smoothly if the fragments make sense, and aren't fragmenting things that should be together. I think you really have to know what the thought is, what the expression is, and keep that together, and fragment only that which is additional or conflicting or undermining or something. There should be a reason to fragment.
A

Falen said...

wow, a lot of those are terrible. I'll use fragmentation in dialogue, and every once in a while for emphasis. But once a paragraph? He should maybe try once a chapter...

em said...

I agree with Murphy and John, sorry Babs.:) Of course it helps that Alicia backed up what they said.:)
I write in fragments a lot without realizing it most times.:(

Anonymous said...

Murphy, I also think fragments can be useful. I work hard NOT to edit mine out. I like the idea of frantic. It works.

Dal Jeanis said...

The major question is whether the work, as written, conveys the meaning the author intended, to his intended audience.

It appears to me to be a slightly distracting style, but the cadence of the words is quite nice. I believe, were it read out loud by an experienced actor, it would sound excellent.

Whether the work would be better served by running the sentences together with hyphens and colons and semicolons, I doubt.

If a fragment effectively conveys a whole thought, as I believe these do, it may be the training of the editor that is distracting you, not the quality of the prose.

Edittorrent said...

I'm thinking that so often, writers assume that if some technique is allowed, that means they can do it anytime, anywhere. "Well, you said the occasional fragment is okay!" And they fragment whenever, wherever.

But these are TOOLS. Fragments are like 9 inch roofing nails, and no, you don't use those to put the mirror on the wall. Fragments work once in a while, but that doesn't mean that it's the mere act of fragmenting that is important. It doesn't mean that a fragment anywhere, anytime, will work.

Sometimes some writers seem like adolescence. "But you let me drink the champagne for the toast at Aunt Stacey's wedding. So that means I can get drunk anytime I want! As long as it's champagne!"

Sigh. The point is to make a good experience for the reader, not to act out defiantly and show that grammar isn't the boss of us.

I think though, that yes, the editor should have fixed those, but the writer was being defiant, and heck,, maybe the editor actually did edit a lot of them. Remember, this was in EVERY paragraph in the book. Almost every one, anyway. And many of the fragments were as long as sentences, and could have been sentences with a single word changed. The cadence for me is almost unbearable (I wouldn't keep reading, actually, if I didn't love the content).

I'm just not sure why anyone would choose to write so fragmentarily.

That's a new word. Fragmentarily. You heard it here first. :)
A

rachelcapps said...

Another great post, Alicia.

The dash! It was loud and clear in my head. Oh, how such a simple change can utterly alter the meaning/tone of a sentence. Love it :)

Murphy - I'm with you, I think fragments used thoughtfully can enhance a scene.

Time to check the MS to see if I'm guilty of writing fragmentarily (!) ...

sylvia said...

Reading this style of fragment drives me absolutely insane. Which makes me want to hurt people. A lot.

As a result of the comments, though, I've been trying to think of fragments that don't make me wince. Or at least, not too much.

I think I can live with them when they are one word. Sometimes.

But I guess that's not really a sentence fragment. Or is it?

This is kind of interesting, actually. Kind of fun.

The point is to make a good experience for the reader, not to act out defiantly and show that grammar isn't the boss of us.

This made me laugh out loud. Seriously.