Sentence Fragments: Use for Conversational Tone

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When Can you Use Sentence Fragments?

Last week, I recommended a summer exercise to play with sentence structures. One commenter asked for more information on sentence fragments.

Arthur Plotnik, author of Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to a Bold Contemporary Style makes this startling statement: “Fragments are a natural and common form of speech, whether in narration or dialogue.” (Chapter 20)

Indeed. It’s refreshing to see someone speak about sentences in a practical and real-world manner. Fragments can and should be part of your fiction writing. Fragments are frowned upon in the academic and business worlds, for good reasons. Those are formal environments, requiring formal ways of communicating, which means grammatically correct sentences.

But good journalism and especially good fiction are more colloquial and informal. The tone, the purpose, the voice–these demand a livelier sentence structures, including the intentional fragment.

A sentence fragment is one which doesn’t contain both a subject and a verb. One or the other is missing. Gone.

Writing Effective Sentence Fragments

In her book, Developing a Written Voice, Dona J. Hickey says that effective sentence fragments A) follows logically from sentence before and B) forms coherent, complete thought, even if grammatically, the sentence is incomplete.

Test the Effectiveness of Your Sentence Fragment

  • Can reader supply words or borrow sense from the sentence before it to make the fragment whole? Usually, it is a modifying detail or a reinforcing imagery.
  • Does the fragment serve to emphasize important information–information that warrants it’s own sentence?
  • Does use of fragments add rhythmical interest or help establish an interesting voice?

There are many reasons to use a series of short sentences, possibly including fragments:

  • heightened information and emotional intensity
  • savoring a series of facts, scraps of info
  • voice and tone demand omission and truncation
  • emphasize importance by withdrawing support or detraction of other words
  • emphasize urgency with quick, breathless utterances
  • to mimic thought snippets
  • to omit repetitions, such as “There is. . .”
  • To create moods from dreamy to manic
  • Draw reader into story with snippets.

Warnings About Using Fragments

But fragments can be overused, especially in certain situations.

Texting and email have tended to emphasize the sentence fragment because it shortens the time to type a message. Checking my phone, here’s some fragments recently used:

  • K.
  • R U?
  • Ya.
  • Great!
  • Yes!
  • Yeah.
  • There by about 6.
  • Very.
  • After 2 pm.

Spunk & Bite emphasizes some of the pitfalls of using fragments:

  • Overuse, rendering them monotonous, ludicrous and ultimately unbearable.
  • Worn-out uses
  • Lazy uses, where complete sentences would deliver greater force or elegance
  • In repetitive use, fragments run out of energy.
  • Giving each fragment it’s own paragraphing only to spread out a section, not for a better reason.
  • The sense of the story is lost and the reader is confused.

Apologies, Miss Scarlett: Overused Fragments, an Example

Rewritten, first paragraph of Gone with the Wind.
Scarlett O’Hara. Not a beautiful woman. Men–the Tarlteton twins. Caught. Charmed. Her face: blend of Irish and French. French, her mother: delicate, Coast aristocrat. Irish, her father: heavy, florid. Her eyes. Pale green without a touch of hazel, bristly black lashes, slightly tilted at the ends. Brows. Thick, black, slanted upwards, an oblique line across her skin. Magnolia-white skin. White skin of Southern white women. Guarded with bonnets, veils, mittens against the hot Georgia suns.

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1 Comment
  • Mathias Cavanaugh
    February 15, 2012

    The first time someone suggested to me that I shouldn’t be using fragments in my writing I replied, “Seriously?” Have they even read popular fiction? There are fragments everywhere!

    Writing is art and art is rarely created by staying within a set of rigid rules and formalities.