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Using Sentence Fragments Effectively

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Most writing handbooks insist that incomplete sentences--or fragments--are errors that need to be corrected. As Toby Fulwiler and Alan Hayakawa say in The Blair Handbook (Prentice Hall, 2003), "The problem with a fragment is its incompleteness. A sentence expresses a complete idea, but a fragment neglects to tell the reader either what it is about (the subject) or what happened (the verb)" (p. 464). In formal writing, the proscription against using fragments often makes good sense.

But not always. In both fiction and nonfiction, the sentence fragment may be used deliberately to create a variety of powerful effects.

Fragments of Thought

Midway through J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace (Secker & Warburg, 1999), the main character experiences shock as the result of a brutal attack at his daughter's house. After the intruders leave, he attempts to come to terms with what has just occurred:

It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life. Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head. Count Lucy lucky too. Above all Lucy.

A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around. not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things.
What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to this theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.
In this passage, the fragments (in italics) reflect the character's efforts to make sense of the harsh, disruptive experience. The sense of incompleteness conveyed by the fragments is deliberate and quite effective.

Narrative and Descriptive Fragments

In Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1837), rascally Alfred Jingle tells a macabre tale that today would probably be labeled an urban legend. Jingle relates the anecdote in a curiously fragmented fashion:

"Heads, heads--take care of your heads!" cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. "Terrible place--dangerous work--other day--five children--mother--tall lady, eating sandwiches--forgot the arch--crash--knock--children look round--mother's head off--sandwich in her hand--no mouth to put it in--head of a family off--shocking, shocking!"

Jingle's narrative style calls to mind the famous opening of Bleak House (1853), in which Dickens devotes three paragraphs to an impressionistic description of a London fog: "fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck." In both passages, the writer is more concerned with conveying sensations and creating a mood than in neatly completing a thought.

The Series of Illustrative Fragments

In "Diligence" (one of the sketches in "Suite Americaine," 1921), H. L. Mencken employed fragments of a different kind to evoke what he saw as the bleakness of early-twentieth-century small-town America:
Pale druggists in remote towns of the Epworth League and flannel nightgown belts, endlessly wrapping up bottles of Peruna. . . . Women hidden away in the damp kitchens of unpainted houses along the railroad tracks, frying tough beefsteaks. . . . Lime and cement dealers being initiated into the Knights of Pythias, the Red Men or the Woodmen of the World. . . . Watchmen at lonely railroad crossings in Iowa, hoping that they'll be able to get off to hear the United Brethren evangelist preach. . . . Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form. . . . Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects. . . . Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls. . . . Women confined for the ninth or tenth time, wondering helplessly what it is all about. . . . Methodist preachers retired after forty years of service in the trenches of God, upon pensions of $600 a year.

Collected rather than connected, such brief fragmented examples offer snapshots of sadness and disappointment.

Fragments and Crots

Different as these passages are, they illustrate a common point: fragments aren't inherently bad. Though a strictly prescriptive grammarian might insist that all fragments are demons waiting to be exorcised, professional writers have looked more kindly on these ragged bits and pieces of prose. And they have found some imaginative ways to use fragments effectively.

Over 30 years ago, in An Alternate Style: Options in Composition (now out of print), Winston Weathers made a strong case for going beyond strict definitions of correctness when teaching writing. Students should be exposed to a wide range of styles, he argued, including the "variegated, discontinuous, fragmented" forms used to great effect by Coetzee, Dickens, Mencken, and countless other writers.

Perhaps because "fragment" is so commonly equated with "error," Weathers reintroduced the term crot, an archaic word for "bit," to characterize this deliberately chopped-up form. An increasingly common style. The language of lists, advertising, blogs, text messages. Like any device, often overworked. Sometimes inappropriately applied.

So this isn't a celebration of all fragments. Incomplete sentences that bore, distract, or confuse readers should be corrected. But there are moments, whether under the archway or at a lonely railroad crossing, when fragments (or crots or verbless sentences) work just fine. Indeed, better than fine.

Also see: In Defense of Fragments, Crots, and Verbless Sentences.

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