When Scribe suggested I did a post on sentence fragments, my first thought was that I didn’t have enough to say about the subject. But as many of you have learned to your considerable chagrin, I’m a word guy, and there is no subject on earth on which I won’t wax eloquent if given the right pulpit. So, dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to talk about fragments.
Full disclosure: I am not what my students sometimes refer to as a “grammar Nazi.” Brits in general tend to view grammar as descriptive rather than prescriptive (i.e. we see it as essentially describing common usage, not as legislating what common usage should be). Grammar changes overtime as language evolves and you won’t find me getting hot under the collar over pedantic fights over whether to split infinitives no man has split before. (For the record, that particular complaint is derived from Latin where an infinitive cannot be divided because it is a single word. It never had any relevance for English).
First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: sentence fragments are ungrammatical, and in many forms of formal writing are therefore inappropriate. In fiction the rules are a little more flexible, but grammar is not just something to be policed for the sake of being on the side of right. It exists to level the playing field, to facilitate clear and precise communication between writers and readers who share an understanding of the coded standards of the printed word. You step outside those rules at your peril, because it’s easy to look like you don’t know what you are doing (particularly bad if you are writing for someone who is looking for clues to your linguistic competence, like an editor or agent). Worse however (and to extend my “level playing field” sports metaphor) is the idea that every time you break a grammar rule you move your own goal posts, potentially disorienting, misleading or just plain pissing off your reader.
You never break grammar rules by mistake, since that implies you don’t know what you’re doing. You break them in full knowledge of what they are and why you are breaking them, or you don’t break them at all.
Fragments look like sentences but aren’t. They can be short, but don’t have to be, while sentences can be short without being fragments. “He ran” is a sentence. “Fast enough to outrun the devil” isn’t. The first has a subject and a verb, and the verb (“run”) doesn’t require an object. The second has no main verb and is an adverbial phrase which depends upon the previous sentence. Incidentally, if you are in doubt as to whether what you have written is a fragment, read the sentences of the paragraph in reverse order. That way you can see if the sentences stand without whatever came before them.
All that said, novelists use fragments all the time so let’s consider some instances where they are useful.
1. In service of a particular voice (authorial) where the entire book is stamped with a nonstandard stylistic quirk: think Cormac McCarthy or James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. That last example should give you pause because it may well be the greatest novel no one ever reads (Ulysses is plenty hard enough for most smart readers).
2. In service of a particular character voice. Consider this example from Matt Haig’s The Dead Fathers’ Club (a smart, contemporary retelling of the Hamlet story from a child’s perspective):
I dont know what an ASTROLGER said when I was born but it really is mad that everything that is going to happen might be in the stars right now and I cant change it and Uncle Alan cant change it and no one can change it. Not even Mum who always reads the stars in her magazines and she used to say Its going to be a good week. Says so here.
The lines capture not just the child’s imperfect grammar but his voice and those of the people in his life. He writes as if he is talking to the reader and the grammar mimics that down to the two fragments which conclude the paragraph, one long one which depends upon the previous sentence, the other short, an echo of his mother’s voice. I love this. It feels right without ever (to my mind) getting intrusive or precious but it requires remarkable skill and consistency to pull it off all the way through a book.
It should also be said that most of the books fulfilling points 1 or 2 are considered in some ways “literary.” There’s less leeway with genre fiction. That might not be fair, but it’s still true.
3. In dialogue. This is the more common extension of point 2. In speech, all bets are off. People talk the way they talk. Again, there is an important proviso here that the fact your dialogue sounds natural doesn’t necessarily make it good. Most actual conversations are repetitive, imprecise and—if set down on paper—dull or annoying. Even in dialogue I would advise you to use fragments only occasionally and try to make them a hallmark of how a particular character speaks, not the way everyone speaks.
4. When demanded by the logic of your world building. I’m leery of this, but there’s certainly a case to be made for the use of nonstandard grammar to evoke a particular time or place. As a rule, I’d say treat such things as a potent spice: interesting when used sparingly, overwhelming to the point of nausea when packed in by the bushel load.
6. To suggest very rapid action. In combat sequences, for instance, it might be useful to use fragments to get a sense of pace, of things happening faster than it takes to express them in normal language. Even here though, use sparingly or it starts to look glib.
5. To create the punch of surprise or otherwise modify what went before. Sentence fragments (unlike run-ons which are almost always simply wrong unless they serve points 1-3 above) can create the effect of thought somehow escaping normal expression, and can—as such—be extremely powerful. They can have comic or other kinds of subversive effect on whatever went before, they can assert character, they can add to or complicate a previous thought or statement with a density which verges on the poetic. Here’s a very simple one from Darwen:
One of the levers jolted slightly as something latched home, then came down with a long pneumatic hiss. It clunked into place and there was a momentary silence before a great wall of steam erupted from the sides of the tree trunks, till the nearest gate was a foggy gray wall.
Then there was a roar of noise and something came out in a blaze of light. Something big.
“Scrobblers!” shouted Moth. “Run.”
The only true fragment here is “Something big” but I include the context to frame it and show what I was going for. The first sentences are long and full of visual detail as Darwen watches the portal come to life, suggesting that he’s almost in shocked, suspended animation. Then something comes through and the fragment allows us to process his confusion and dread. I could have just as easily written “…something big came out in a blaze of light” thereby not needing the fragment, but I like the pause which the end of the sentence demands, followed by the two word fragment which conveys the character’s dread and confusion. He doesn’t know what it is, just that it’s big, and that sense of rising panic crystalizes in Moth’s line which ends the chapter.
Note, however, that to have the effect of surprise, fragments have to be RARE. This is a matter of personal taste, of course, but for me an isolated fragment feels stylish, while multiple fragments oscillate between performative narcissism and incompetence.
As ever, of course, my two cents.
And this has gone on (paradoxically) too long. Thoughts? Favorite examples? Fire away. Or not.