Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sentence fragments

I have no problem with sentence fragments. No problem at all. :)

What I have a problem with is fragments that serve no purpose. Here's an example:
The editor was always bitching. About all sorts of things.

Now from a very accomplished writer-- you know, the type of writer whose voice just hums with authority, who can be counted on to experiment with prose and syntax and KNOW when it works and fix it when it doesn't-- I might think, "Oh! This very accomplished author wants me to read that differently than if it were one complete sentence!" And then I'll read it -that- way, and (rather like with enjambment in poetry) get both the broken up meaning and the complete meaning. So I'll read a great deal of exasperation there, even weariness. The editor was ALWAYS bitching. And then, I'll imagine a sigh, and the speaker/character/narrator wearily going on and starting to list all the many things the editor bitched about.

(This "reading"will be more likely if there is a series of fragments, a list of the bitch-topics, btw:
The editor was always bitching. About all sorts of things. About sentence fragments. About "everyone" as a singular noun. About dangling modifiers. Especially about dangling modifiers.)

If the author is trying replicate the staccato quality of some narrator's speech patterns, hey, I can go for that! I'm nothing if not avant-garde. :) But I won't believe that's what is happening if the rest of the manuscript is written in serviceable, not inspired, prose.

There's nothing wrong with serviceable prose, of course. It serves its purpose and doesn't get in the way of the story, but anything outre (there's an accent mark there, but I don't know how to do it in html and I'm too hungry to go look it up!) in serviceable prose is likely to be interpreted as a mistake, not as an experiment. And, well, that's because it usually IS a mistake.

So if you can identify a sentence fragment in your own passage and explain (as I just did about the bitchy editor) how the reader will "hear" it, why it adds to the reader's experience, and why it's worth violating sentence rules, okay! I'll be right there with you, egging you on. "Your narrator is a teenaged girl! So why not put in a 'duh' or two there, just to make the narrative sound more like her?"

(I tell my students that if they use a sentence fragment, they have to put an asterisk there and then at the end of the paper, explain WHY they made that a fragment and why it works better than a complete sentence would. If you think that's evil, keep in mind that when I started teaching 20 years ago, we were told to fail immediately any paper with a sentence fragment. That was unofficial policy. See how much nicer I am now?)

But more often, what I see are sentence fragments that serve no purpose, that the author doesn't recognize as sentence fragments, that add nothing to the experience of reading (except annoyance). Those are the ones I quickly edit, usually by linking them right to the previous sentence, or replacing "which" with "this," or something else the author could just as easily have done himself.

Here are a few examples, culled (and modified) from submissions and student papers.

John was about to leave. Although he wanted to stay.

I already knew the truth. The truth being that she didn't love me anymore.

She pulled off her jacket. Her cardigan too. (This actually might work, if the rest of the narration seemed conversationally adroit. So... why would that work?)

Gas prices were rising through the roof. The stock market falling.

Joella wasn't easily shocked now. By swearing. (See, if the fragment was "By anything," I'd think that it was meant to be emphatic, and thus purposeful.)

Too many people had already emigrated. Because of the potato famine.

She decided to go to dinner. With the group of skateboarders.

He turned the ignition on. Which started right up.

So how about some examples in comments? Most of the above, I'd just edit to connect the sentences. But see, there are two examples that made me speculate. Under what circumstances would you use a sentence fragment, and how would you explain it? Can you give an example? Or would you never use one if you could help it?

(Let me say that I don't consider dialogue as needing a justification for non-standard English, as long as the dialogue works. But even in dialogue, fifteen sentence fragments in a row will sound a bit... jagged. Theresa, please ignore ellipsis. Or if you can't, here's my justification. I wanted it clear that I was hesitating, searching for an adjective, and that perhaps I'd discarded a more nasty one.)

Something to remember: Many of your readers are likely to be sophisticated readers, who read more than just the words to get the meaning. They're reading the rhythm, the structure of sentences, the punctuation, the word choice, the ratio of black ink (or pixels) to white paper (or screen). They're even reading the shape of words. All this can add to the meaning of the passage. They will love it when you exploit their greater meaning-making ability to good purpose. But their greater sensitivity means that they will be put off by signifiers that are NOT to a purpose, because they will react with a meaning-making that turns out to be unfulfilled-- meaning interruptus! (Tell me you know what I mean!)

And how do you know if you are at the level where you can play with those sensitive readers, or if you should stick with serviceable and correct prose?



Anonymous said...

I, ahem, did not have to look very far for sentence fragments.

(My protagonist and her currently unapprenticed boyfriend; from the middle of a conversation.)

"I had to give Fioris the truth, and he simply listened and asked me did I want an apprenticeship, and when I said 'yes', he said he was willing to offer me probation. Just like that. I still can't believe it."
"You'd better. And I'm certain he has thought it though."
"So am I. Will you laugh if I tell you I'm scared?"
"Only a little." They should get up, if only to be fully awake and dressed when Hesqui arrived.

I could not find any sentence fragments outside the dialogue, so maybe there is hope...

Edittorrent said...

I think dialogue absolutely ought to replicate real speech patterns, though modified to make it readable (the "umms" and "you knows" trimmed out :). We're all experts in dialogue-- we've been engaging in it all our lives-- so we can "hear" when dialogue is written that wouldn't be spoken.

Edittorrent said...

Fragments? Love 'em. *ggg*

I seem to have two favorite sentence types: fragments and endless.


Edittorrent said...

ps. Did you notice how I ignored the ellipsis?

Theresa the Tolerant

Dave Shaw said...

My overly bright and occasionally pedantic protagonist thinks that 'fragging' should only be done to enemy soldiers, not to sentences. Except when necessary, of course. ;-) The Marine captain that hates her uses them and other forms of bad grammar all the time, which drives her up the wall. Sometimes I think I tease her too much. LOL

Anyway, does anyone think it's just a little too 'cute' to make a character mildly anal about this sort of thing? I tell myself that it's a humanizing foible, but maybe it's just a distraction from the story. Thoughts?

Edittorrent said...

"ps. Did you notice how I ignored the ellipsis?

Theresa the Tolerant:

Oh, wait'll I tell you that I had five, count'em five, sets of ellipses, and cut as many out as I could. :)

Edittorrent said...

dave asked, "Anyway, does anyone think it's just a little too 'cute' to make a character mildly anal about this sort of thing? I tell myself that it's a humanizing foible, but maybe it's just a distraction from the story. Thoughts?"

Well, my father-in-law (otherwise very sweet) gets palpitations whenever anyone uses 'hopefully' as a sentence adverb ("Hopefully, it won't rain tomorrow"). And wouldn't you know it, there's some imp of the perverse in me that makes me use that constantly around him.

I can speculate about why, out of all the grammar rules, he's chosen that one to be picky about. I think some English teacher he loved probably passed that on to him, and it's almost an homage to her.

Anyway, I'd think pickiness is not just a TRAIT... but shows something about her character. So why does she feel that way? And how does it get her into trouble? That's how you connect it to the plot. Have her correct her boss in public.... Can they courtmartial you for correcting the captain's grammar? :)

Anonymous said...

*koffs* I use fragments a fair amount. Not that I inundate my manuscripts with them, but I *do* use them deliberately.

Like so:

That night he sat above the tideline among the wrack and seaweed, his mind searching for anai and searching for answers; his memory caught in a loop of crack and groan and the descent of Amnaem and how in all of it he had let Gysia go. He had tried, oh, how hard he had tried, to cling to her hand, but as the island sank, the force of the waves snatched her away. That, he could never forgive, not himself or who had perpetrated the disaster.

Spot the fragment *G*


Dave Shaw said...

Hmm, connection to the plot... (Hi, Theresa! :-) )

Well, the Marine captain isn't in her chain of command, but going off on him would be a problem for her, since they're on the same ship. She has a temper, too, so maybe this is the minor provocation that sets her off when everything else is hitting the fan for her. Yeah, maybe that's the ticket! Thanks, Alicia! :-)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Fragments help establish voice. (sometimes)

"It was the movie that sealed Mom's fame -- or infamy, depending on how you look at it. She filmed it while she was pregnant with us. Pregnant and showing and voluptuous and all that."

Bernita said...

I use fragments. A lot.
And yes, I know they are fragments. Truly, I do.
I use them for emphasis, particularly in first person.

Dave Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Shaw said...

Swell! Sally thought. More sentence fragments! Can't that man ever speak in complete sentences? Did someone tell him how much they stress proper grammar in New Tahitian private schools and he's using it to irritate me?


Anonymous said...

I just revisited Mara's opening. On first reading, I'd found Not finding the trousers, he made the mistake of slitting his eyes for a look around rather clunky. It occurs to me that I would probably write it as

No trousers. Where-? Reid made the mistake of opening his eyes a fraction to have them seared by midmorning light.

He's not quite coherent, so it would be fitting for the prose to be somewhat abrupt as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alicia,

First off I'd like to thank you for such great writing discussions. I've recently discovered your blog, and I'm hooked.

I do use sentence fragments. I use them more in shorter short stories than in novel length, and I like to use them for effect.

Here's an example from a WIP - a short story about a soldier who wakes up in a field hospital after the battle at Gettysburg.


The fetid stench of human waste and putrid flesh assaults me, and the blur of muted colors sharpens into stark clarity, showing pale faces and wide, unseeing eyes. There’s blood. So much blood. The thick crimson of it is everywhere—on blankets and bandages, dripping onto the floor, staining our blue wool, soaking trousers. My trousers.

God, not my leg.


So I've got three sentence fragments in this short bit. I start out with longer sentences because it's sort of a stream of consciousness as he begins to wake up and sensations hit him. The first two fragments are to give the effect of him slowly coming to full consciousness.

The first fragment's about the blood. First he sees the blood as his eyes focus. Then he brings in his focus more sharply, and the amount of it hits him. I put in the fragment to emphasize this.

In the second one it's the same. First he's 'further out', seeing the blood soaking trousers, then the realization narrows down to his own trousers, so I emphasize that with the fragment.

The last one is used mostly to sound like realistic internal dialogue. My own internal dialogue is full of fragments.

So that's my example. :)


Edittorrent said...

Annette, do you think first-person leads kind of naturally more to fragments? It's more conversational by nature.

In one workshop I do, I give everyone a prompt (your main character is approaching a closed door and dreading what's behind it, and you decide why and what she/he does) and tell them to write it in third person. And then everyone reads that aloud. Then I tell them to go back and write the same situation but in the character's first person voice. No real insights here, except that almost always, there is a more staccato feel to the first-person, because of fragments!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think you have something there regarding fragments in first person. I hadn't thought of that before. I also see some in my own writing when I have a passage that's really close third person - very intimate. Not so much or not at all when I'm further away in third person limited. And I use them more in pieces where I am paying closer attention to the rhythm and going for a more poetic feel.

And I confess fragments are very useful to me in flash fiction - 60 or 100 words.

Fun stuff!