1. What is a Sentence Fragment?
As you probably know, a fragment is a small piece of something. Likewise, a sentence fragment is a just a piece of a sentence that’s become detached or separated from the rest. On its own, it’s an incomplete sentence, and so it’s sometimes called a fragment sentence. Most of the time, a fragment is the result of a misplaced period that separates certain words or information from a sentence’s main clause. Since every sentence needs a main clause, anything without one is a sentence fragment.
2. Examples of a Sentence Fragment
Sentence fragments happen more often than you might think, especially for developing writers. Here are some common ways they tend to show up, with the fragments in purple:
- I went to the store. Because I wanted a soda. Fragment
- Starbucks Coffee comes in three sizes. Venti, Grande, and Tall. Fragment
- Jane got to the store in 10 minutes. Arriving just before it closed. Fragment
- There are lots of great candies. Like chocolate, caramel, sour, and gummy. Fragment
3. Ways that Sentence Fragments Occur
Sentence fragments are easily avoidable mistakes. The main ways that they happen are when we misplace punctuation in a way that cuts off a main clause, or when we try to use dependent clauses as full sentences. So, any incomplete sentence is a fragment. But, the good thing is that they are easy to spot and easier to fix!
a. Dependent Clauses
By themselves, dependent clauses are always sentence fragments because they don’t express complete thoughts on their own. They can’t be full sentences because they are “dependent” on independent clauses to make sense. So, without an independent clause (the main clause), a dependent clause is a fragment. Let’s make that easier to understand with this example:
- I picked apples today. When I was at the local orchard. Fragment
Here, the independent clause is a full sentence. But, dependent clause “at the local orchard” doesn’t make any sense on its own—it’s just a fragment of a complete thought. So, we need to piece it together with the independent clause:
- I picked apples today when I was at the local orchard. Complete!
By attaching the fragment to an independent clause, we now have a complete sentence! Let’s try another example:
- While I was apple-picking. I saw 3 different kinds of apples. Fragment
- While I was apple picking, I saw 3 different kinds of apples. Complete!
Again, the dependent clause doesn’t make sense: “while I was apple-picking” isn’t a full sentence. But, by combining it with the independent clause, we fix the fragment.
b. Misplaced Periods
You now know that every sentence needs a main (independent) clause. When words get cut off from a main clause by a period, they turn into a fragment. Sometimes that may be a few words—when that happens, the fragment is really just the result of a period in the wrong place. In most situations, a misplaced period happens when a writer uses a period instead of another type of punctuation, like a comma or a colon.
Here’s what happens when you misplace an extra period:
- I think I will make a pie. Later on tonight. Fragment
- I think I will make a pie later on tonight. Complete!
“Later on tonight” is a fragment because it doesn’t have a subject or a predicate (it is not an independent clause). So, in this example, the period is not necessary—it breaks the sentence up into an independent clause and a fragment. Removing the period fixes that! Here’s another:
- I went apple picking. With my friends Jane and Sally. Fragment
- I went apple picking with my friends Jane and Sally. Complete!
Here’s what happens when you use a period instead of a colon:
- The store has two types of apples. Macintosh and Granny Smith. Fragment
- The store has three types of apples: Macintosh and Granny Smith. Complete!
- I will probably make 3 pies. Caramel Apple, Apple Walnut, and Apple Berry. Fragment
- I will probably make 3 pies: caramel Apple, Apple Walnut, and Apple Berry. Complete!
When a period is used instead of a colon, you’re only left with a fragment that has a list of things. Since the fragment doesn’t have a subject or a predicate, it can’t be a full sentence.
And here’s what happens when you use a period instead of a comma:
- They had a lot types of apples. Such as Macintosh and Granny Smith. Fragment
- There had a lot of types of apples, such as Macintosh and Granny Smith. Complete!
Again, the second part of the sentence doesn’t have a subject or a predicate. It’s a dependent clause, and needs the first part of the sentence to make sense—we just need a comma, not a period, to connect them!
4. How to Avoid Fragments
Now you know that a sentence fragment happens when we don’t write in complete sentences, or we break sentences up when we don’t need to. Therefore, the way to avoid fragments is to simply make sure we write in full sentences and express complete thoughts. We do this by being able to recognize dependent clauses and fix misplaced periods that break off words from their main clause.
a. Recognizing Clauses
Every sentence needs a subject-predicate combination (a clause), but, to be a full sentence, it needs at least one independent clause. That’s why on its own, a dependent clause is a sentence fragment. While dependent clauses do have a subject-predicate combination, they don’t express a complete thought, and because it’s not a complete thought, a dependent clause leaves an unanswered question. Look at these examples:
- Sally lost her phone. Complete thought
- While she was apple-picking. What happened?
The first sentence makes sense—the subject Sally lost her phone. But the second example doesn’t express a complete thought, and only gives us a fragment of the information. Even though it has a subject (she) and a predicate (was apple-picking), it leaves the question “what happened while she was apple picking?” Without knowing the answer, we don’t know what’s going on. This is a dependent clause. To fix it, we need to answer the question:
- While she was apple-picking, Sally lost her phone.
As you can see, attaching the independent clause “Sally lost her phone” tells what happened “while she was apple picking.” Now, it’s a complete thought and a full sentence.
b. Putting Periods in their Place
Fragments aren’t only dependent clauses—as discussed, they can happen when a group of words gets cut off from a sentence’s main clause—usually from using an extra period. When a period needlessly breaks up a sentence, it can leave words floating around where they don’t belong:
- Sally used three spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.
This list of three things doesn’t have a subject or a predicate. In cases like this, the words just need to be connected to the main clause. So, the fragment can be corrected just by fixing or removing a misplaced period:
- Sally used three spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.
But how can you tell when a period is in the wrong spot? Well, that’s easy! You just need to remember a period’s purpose—to show what’s called a “full stop.” So, what does that mean, and how can it help?
- A period works like a stop sign—when you see one, you need to come to a full stop on the road.
- Likewise, when you see a period, you should come to a complete stop in your speaking or reading before continuing to the next sentence.
- Imagine if there was a stop sign in the middle of the highway or the road when you really didn’t need one—it would definitely be noticeable, and would cause a lot of problems for drivers by breaking up the road in the wrong spots!
- In the same way, a period in the wrong place would make you stop at the wrong time.
- To fix a fragment, you just need to figure out where the stop belongs or (doesn’t belong).
- A period shouldn’t cut off words or a dependent clause from the main clause—so, that stop (a period) shouldn’t come between them! If it does, you’ve got a fragment.
Overall, remember this—if you read a sentence and it sounds too short or doesn’t make sense, then it’s probably a fragment!