What is a fragment?
A fragment is an incomplete sentence, a series of words that can't stand on its own. A fragment may express part of an idea, but the reader will be expecting something further to complete the thought. An intuitive way to see if a sentence is a fragment is to put the words "I think that" in front of it. If the sentence is a complete thought, we should be able to introduce it with "I think that" and have it make sense. For example, take the following sentence: "Children helping in the kitchen." We can try writing, "I think that children helping in the kitchen." As readers we will be wondering what we are supposed to think about the children helping. Something is clearly missing.
We can detect a fragment by analyzing the grammar of the sentence. A fragment is always missing a main subject or a main verb or both. In the example, "Children helping in the kitchen" was missing a main verb. We could fix the fragment by adding a main verb.
Fragment: Children helping in the kitchen.
Complete sentence: Children helping in the kitchen often make a mess.
See whether you can identify which fragment below is missing a subject and which is missing a verb.
Fragment: Told her about the broken vase.
Complete sentence: I told her about the broken vase.
Fragment: The store down on Main Street.
Complete sentence: The store down on Main Street sells music.
Combine the fragment with a nearby sentence
Often a fragment belongs with the sentence before or after it. If the sentence before or after can complete the thought, the simplest way to fix the fragment is to join the two. Writers sometimes create fragments when we are trying to avoid run-ons. We may feel that a sentence is getting too long. Remember, however, that it is fine to write a long sentence if any independent clauses are connected with the right punctuation and connecting words. It is also fine to break the sentence up if it seems too long, but in that case we need to make sure that each resulting sentence is complete on its own.
Add words to complete the thought
If there is no sentence before or after the fragment that naturally completes its meaning, we can add words to make the fragment into a full sentence. This might mean adding a main subject or verb or a whole independent clause.
Fragment: Not understanding the nature of capitalism and the way it encourages everyone to believe they will likely become rich.
Complete sentence: The general public does not understand that capitalism by nature encourages everyone to believe they will likely become rich.
In the first version in the above example, readers would not have known who was not understanding. The beginning of the sentence was a verbal phrase without a main subject and verb. The first version did include a clause with subject and verb ("it encourages"), but that clause was serving to describe the noun "way." There was no main verb to go with "way." The revised complete sentence added a subject, "the general public" and changed the verb from the -ing form into a main verb, "does not understand." The revision also condensed the sentence by cutting out "the way it."
Common fragment patterns
Below are some common patterns that fragments take with sample corrections. In each case, there is a word or a grammatical feature that signals to the reader that the phrase is not the main idea but a side idea in the sentence.
Prepositions are words such as in, at, on, of, after, and before. They introduce other words and make a group of words into a prepositional phrase. If a prepositional phrase is not connected to a complete sentence, it is a fragment. Often we can connect the prepositional phrase to a sentence before or after it. If we add it to the beginning of the other sentence, we need to insert a comma after the prepositional phrase.
Fragment: After walking over two miles. John remembered his wallet.
Complete sentence: After walking over two miles, John remembered his wallet.
Complete sentence: John remembered his wallet after walking over two miles.
Dependent words like since, because, without, or unless signal to the reader that a clause is not the main point of the sentence. A dependent clause will have a subject and verb, but it still cannot stand on its own. Like prepositional phrases, a dependent clause can be a fragment if it is not connected to an independent clause containing a main subject and verb. To fix the problem, we can add such a fragment to the beginning or end of an independent clause. When we add the fragment to the beginning of a sentence, we follow it with a comma.
Fragment: Because we lost power. The entire family overslept.
Complete sentence: Because we lost power, the entire family overslept.
Complete sentence: The entire family overslept because we lost power.
Fragment: He has been seeing a physical therapist. Since his accident.
Complete sentence: Since his accident, he has been seeing a physical therapist.
Complete sentence: He has been seeing a physical therapist since his accident.
Another common fragment pattern is a phrase that centers on a verb in -ing form. If we use an -ing form we should double-check that there is a main subject and verb. The main verb itself can't be in -ing form, and verbs in -ing form also often appear without a subject.
Fragment: Taking deep breaths. Saul prepared for his presentation.
Complete sentence: Taking deep breaths, Saul prepared for his presentation.
Complete sentence: Taking deep breaths helped Saul prepare for his presentation.
Another kind of phrase that commonly gets left to stand on its own is an infinitive phrase, or a verb paired with the word to such as to run, to write, or to reach. Like an -ing form, an infinitive cannot be used as the main verb.
Fragment: We needed to make three hundred more paper cranes. To reach the one thousand mark.
Complete sentence: We needed to make three hundred more paper cranes to reach the one thousand mark.
Copy the following sentences onto your own sheet of paper and circle the fragments. Then either add words or combine the fragment with the independent clause to create a complete sentence.
- Working without taking a break. We try to get as much work done as we can in an hour.
- I needed to bring work home. In order to meet the deadline.
- Unless the ground thaws before spring break. We won’t be planting any tulips this year.
- Turning the lights off after he was done in the kitchen. Robert tries to conserve energy whenever possible.
- You’ll find what you need if you look. On the shelf next to the potted plant.
- To find the perfect apartment. Deidre scoured the classifieds each day.