Our ability to communicate with each other depends on our ability to use and understand sentences. Sentences express our complete thoughts. We all already can identify, recognize, and use complete sentences. In fact, we have such a strong sense of what a sentence is that it can sometimes cause us problems—we tend to automatically fill in a context for fragments. We make implicit sentences out of them. This tendency is a problem when we write because it often means that we “read right over” fragments in text, especially when it’s our own text.
One thing we can do to compensate for this tendency is to read paragraphs backwards. In other words, read the last sentence first, then the next-to-last sentence, and so on. What this technique does is force us to separate each sentence from the one that would normally come before it and makes it harder for us to fill in a context since we often rely on information from the preceding sentence to fill in with. Complete sentences must be able to stand alone without relying on previous context.
The next step is to ask yourself whether the sentence can stand alone. One way to do that is to imagine that each sentence is the first sentence a friend says to you in a conversation. If the sentence conveys a complete message, then it is a complete sentence. If it does not, it is a fragment.
Consider the following scenario. John walks up to you and says, “Because the polka-dotted cow stood on her head, the farmer came down with measles.”
Obviously, the message is fantastic and silly, but you probably would still recognize it as a complete message.
But if John came up to you and said, “with measles,” or “because the polka-dotted cow stood on her head,” you would likely feel that some part of the message was missing. You would recognize that those statements were fragments.
The next step, obviously, is to fix the fragment. We can fix a fragment in one of two ways—we can either attach the fragment to another sentence (usually the one right before it in the paragraph), or we can expand the fragment to include what is missing (usually a subject or verb).
For instance, you have isolated the following group of words in a paragraph and realize that it is a fragment: “If the proposal succeeds.” Your next step is to check the sentence before and the sentence after the fragment to see if it can be logically attached to one of them (chances are it can), and you notice that the sentence before it says, “We will proceed immediately with the project.” The fragment can logically be attached to this sentence to form a complete thought: “We will proceed immediately with the project if the proposal succeeds.” Or you can attach the fragment to the beginning of the sentence so that the sentence reads, “If the proposal succeeds, we will proceed immediately with the project.”
In some rare instances, you might find a fragment that can’t logically be attached to another sentence. In that case, ask yourself first whether the information actually belongs in the paragraph and, if it does, expand the fragment to provide the pieces necessary to create a complete sentence.
So, to eliminate fragments from your writing do the following steps:
- Isolate the sentence by reading the paragraph backwards
- Imagine the sentence as the first sentence of a conversation
- Fix the fragment by attaching it to another sentence or expanding it.
You can test your understanding of this handout by completing Student Success Center exercises available here.
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