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Using Sentence Fragments Wisely

Author: Linda Neuman

Introduction: Sentence fragments and their uses

Our Fragmented World

A fragment is a piece that is broken off from a whole thing.  When you see a fragment of something, your sense is that it is incomplete; it belongs to something greater, or once did.

A sentence expresses a complete thought.  Also, every sentence, no matter how short, contains a subject—or an implied subject—and a verb

So a sentence fragment would be a piece of a sentence.  It’s not a sentence because it’s incomplete, and does not contain both a subject and a verb.  Sometimes sentence fragments are referred to as incomplete sentences.  There is something missing, and you know it when you read it.  The thought is not complete, like a sentence would be.

Example of a sentence:  Her car was old, but very stylish.

Example of a sentence fragment:  Her car was old.  But very stylish.

But as we all well know, life is full of fragments, both literally and figuratively.  The verb fragment means to break up, to break into pieces, to cause the loss of unity or cohesion.  We experience fragmentation every time a glass shatters, our cellphone signal starts to cut out, or when a family goes through a divorce. 

Additionally, people speak in fragments.  All the time.  We are quite comfortable hearing fragments in casual conversation, but can be confused or put off by sentence fragments in written works, unless they are put there purposefully.

Sentence fragments can actually help the reader understand something.  But it’s a literary device, and like all literary devices it must be used with care. 

Can we effectively use sentence fragments in an essay?  Possibly, depending on the audience.

Should a creative writer consider using sentence fragments?  Certainly, if the content calls for it.

So, what did you think of those two sentence fragments?  Were they effective?

Two Effective Uses of Sentence Fragments

         To convey a casual or conversational style

Fragments could be used in an informal essay, or any written piece that is purposely casual. They would be used to promote understanding and cater to a certain audience that will likely appreciate and respond favorably to informality.

Examples:  The words in blue above are sentence fragments.  The first example is merely a demonstration, but the next example was placed there to make a point about how people speak informally.  The other two fragments are meant to promote understanding through the use of a conversational style.

            To convey a sense of fragmentation

When characters in a novel experience fragmentation, sentence fragments can do a great job of describing that sense of something or someone isolated, broken apart or disoriented.

Example:  “IT was a brain. A disembodied brain.  An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying.  A living brain.   A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT.” (p. 158, A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle)


You can see that a sentence fragment can be a powerful literary tool.  It can help you feel what the character is feeling.

But you can also see that it isn’t something you could read for pages on end and not feel fatigued. Fragments are only effective if used judiciously, and with a specific intent in mind.

Source: Linda Neuman

Conclusion: Fragments can be your friends, but don't let them rule your life.

Poets and ad writers use fragments all the time--you can, too! 

Just not all the time.

Don't be afraid to use sentence fragments in creative or conversational-style writing.  There are times when a sentence fragment is just what you need to get your point across.

Good places for judicial use of fragments:

poems, op-ed pieces, fiction, ads, journal-style narratives

You do NOT want sentence fragments within the paragraphs of your academic essay, medical journal, text book, or hard news story.  Fragments are for creative writing only, and even then you never want to overuse them or they will lose their value and detract from your work.

Click on this link for some great examples of how sentence fragments are used effectively:

It will help you get some ideas on how you can use them.

Have fun finding the fragments in this ad...then try using fragments in your own creative writing.  Enjoy!