Saturday, April 6, 2013

GrammatiCats: Fragments

There it is: that dirtiest of F-words, fragment.  You may recall hearing these vilified in 8th-grade English, or seeing "FRAG" scrawled on your paper in red ink, as shameful and permanently as Hester Prynne's damning scarlet letter.

Well, so what is a fragment, and why are they such a big fraggin' deal?  Must we always shun them, or is our society tolerant enough to accept the syntactical liberties of consenting adults?

Let's explore.

Pinkie Rating: 1

Essentially, a fragment is an incomplete sentence.

Well, so what constitutes a complete sentence?

A complete sentence, like this one, must have a subject (thing the sentence is about) and a verb (what the subject does or has done to it).  Here, the subject is "you" and the verb is "disgust."  ("Me" is the object - it receives the action of the verb - but those are optional.)

Here's a question: is this a complete sentence?

The verb is "call" and the object is "the police," but who is it that's supposed to do the calling?  We know it can't be "please."

It's you, naturally!  One look into Cop-Cat's pleading eyes should remove all doubt: this is indeed a complete sentence, with an implied subject of "you."  You can think of it as (You) please call the police.

That's how English can have complete sentences that are only a single word.  Take this one, for example:

We have a verb and we understand the invisible "you" subject it goes with, so our sentence is solid, even if our souls are sordid.

Back to fragments: as an incomplete sentence, a fragment is missing some essential part.

It could be missing a subject:  Claws up your couch.

It could be missing a verb:  The mangy gray tom-cat.

It could be missing a subject AND a verb:  All over the carpet.

Or it could be missing something else entirely.

"Well, what else is there?" you might very-reasonably inquire.  "If it's got a subject and a verb, then where's the problem, chief?"

Let's look at an example.  Here's a complete sentence:

We've got a subject ("It") and a verb ("was spoken").  Grammatically, these kitties are good.  (Morally, perhaps not so much.)

Let's say we add a word, so that it reads Although it was never spoken of again.

Now it's a fragment. 

Well, what the hell?  How can you start with "enough" of a sentence, then add an extra bonus word out of the goodness of your heart, and get "not enough" sentence?  What kind of outrageous ingratitude is this?

Essentially, the sentence is now promising something it doesn't deliver.  As we discussed in our Conjunctions episode, "although" is a conjunction, which means it's supposed to join two items.  If we put it at the beginning of the sentence, we're setting up two complete thoughts: "Although [thing one], [thing two]."  And as any Hat-sporting Cat knows, you can't have Thing One without Thing Two.

So let's give it one!

Now we're cooking!  We might be spiraling ever further into remorseless kitty depravity, but by gum, we are doing it in a syntactically-sound fashion!

In general, the most common problem that fluent English-speakers have with fragments is due to punctuation.  When you say the 50-Shades sentence out loud, you can probably hear the pause between the two items, and the way your voice changes at the end of the first one.  For most of us, the difficulty lies in knowing whether to render that little pause as a comma or a period.  (If you have the opposite problem, and tend NOT to hear the pause, you end up with run-ons instead of fragments - but that is another subject for another day!)

So here's the big burning question:  is it ever okay to have fragments in your writing?

Ladies and gentlecats, there is not a font size large enough for my emphatic YES.  You can do so many wonderful things with fragments!

Take this example.  The second sentence is a fragment.  How "should" we correct it?

If we were going strictly by the book, it would say, Everything's bigger in Texas, especially the roaches.

But it's not as funny with a small, soft pause.  Setting the punch-line as its own (fragmentary!) sentence gives us a full 'beat' of silence after the first sentence, and makes the impact of the second one that much greater.

That works for comedy, but it's equally important for drama.

Granted, most of the time we don't have a cat-photo to act as a dramatic buffer between our sentences, but you can get a similar effect by making your powerful, punchy fragment not only its own sentence, but also its own paragraph.

Fragments are also a part of our natural, everyday speech.

If we were going to iron this sentence out to wear for a nice dinner at the Olive Garden - well, first we'd need to smooth out gonna so that it says going to.  Then we'd have to add are*.  That would give us:

Hey, are you going to finish that?

*NB: remember that '-ing' verbs like 'going' can't carry a sentence by themselves.  You have to add a 'helping' verb, such as 'are', 'is', or 'were', in order to make it a main verb.

Now we have a nice, clean, correct, flavorless sentence that does not bear much resemblance to the way we - or at least, people down here in my neck of the woods! - actually speak in casual conversation.

And sometimes clean-and-correct is what you want!  For academic writing, journalism, or other formal occasions, you don't want to roll up in a tuxedo shirt and sweatpants with "JUICY" emblazoned across the seat-parts.

But the end of the day, fragments are just like any other grammatical rule: the 'correct' way to write is the one that will get you your desired result - whether that's humor, credibility, employment, publication, or a passing grade in AP English.  The more you know about the rules, the greater your ability to adapt your writing to any given occasion.

Now go, brethren and sistren, and sin knowledgeably!

Further reading:
Purdue OWL: Sentence Fragments
Sentence Fragments - scroll to the bottom for two handy quizzes on finding and fixing them

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1. Esther, courtesy of Gary
2. Our own long-suffering Peaches
3. Violet, courtesy of Pamela (The Death Writer!)
4. Jeremiah, Little Bit, and Ezekiel, also courtesy of Gary
5. Peaches again
6. Polo, courtesy of Jarret O.
7. Mystery kitten, courtesy of Jarret O.

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. I am learning so much from your posts! Rock on!

  2. Hi Tex,
    Good to be here,
    Browsing thru the a to z participants pages i landed here,
    Lot of new things to learn from here.
    I learned yet another good word and its different aspects here. Thanks for sharing this,
    Will come back to read more. I am joining in/
    waiting for more to read,
    Keeep inform
    Good Wishes
    Keep in touch
    I am
    Phil @ Philipscom
    An ambassador to A to Z Challenge @ Tina's Life is Good
    And My Bio-blog

    1. Hi Phil - and thanks so much for stopping by! I never realized how much work went into making the A to Z Challenge happen - that's so good of you to volunteer your time so that we can enjoy it. Looking forward to visiting your site soon!

  3. The only Frags I fear exist solely in my First Person Shooters!

    Fragments are my guilty little pleasure. I used them quite often in my writing to stress various things.

    I love the REPENT cat lol

    Jak at The Cryton Chronicles & Dreams in the Shade of Ink