Breaking Grammar Rules: Sentence Fragments

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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).

So. Fragments.

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.

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24 comments to Breaking Grammar Rules: Sentence Fragments

  • I tend to use a lot of sentence fragments when I write my novels in first-person. They help me to capture the voice of the character.

    In third person, though, I rarely use them. Perhaps that’s because I was scarred when I *failed* a ninth-grade English-class essay because I used a sentence fragment in a “descriptive writing” homework exercise. We were supposed to describe something in the natural world, and I wrote about dawn, with lots of flowery language, and then the fragment: “And the sun.” Followed by more flowery language.

    F. Right there, in glowing red ink, even though I protested vigorously that I had just used the fragment for effect, that I knew English grammar, blah, blah, blah.

    What’s that you said about descriptive/proscriptive use of grammar? ::wry grin::

  • Mindy, I’m appalled that an English teacher would fail an assignment because of a single “mistake”, which you could even defend. Bah.

    I agree that 1-3 tend to be truer for literary fiction than genre fiction, and part of that, I would wager, is because literary fiction tends to take the real world and make it fantastic, whereas genre fiction tries to take the fantastic and make it real. It’s easier to evoke a dream-like voice, or extra-realism of voice with frantic. I have nothing to substantiate that theory, but it seems to fit.

    Thanks for laying out these ways in which fragments can be used – it’s helpful to have some criteria to analyze the use of fragments. I probably use too many in some areas, which I bet takes away from the effect of the important ones.

  • AJ, I totally overuse fragments and I know it. Like Mindy, part of it is the first person POV where getting into the thoughts of a character seem to draw it out of me and into the writing, but part of it is the way people think.

    Some people think in pictures and then have to translate those picture-thoughts into words, so that the writing / thinking is actually the second strand or second part of the communication process. A re-write, if you will.

    People who think in words think in short bursts, not long, intricate sentences. Sentences come after, after the creation of concept is done and communication (rewriting or even speaking) begins. I am word thinker. Hence my sentences (in first draft) are short and choppy. Not until a later rewrite (sometimes a final rewrite) do I tie things together into longer sentences. It is something that I must fight against, but it is native to me.

    In fact, I was fully grown and already published when I realized the some people have *picture memories*. They can recall a face or an image or a scene or an experience and feel the emotions of that moment. I can’t. I can’t picture my own mother’s face very well. But I can describe it with words, and bring all the emotion and love and betrayal and childhood hurts and joys into the word-picture moment.

  • Hi. My name is Lyn, and I’m a fragment addict.

    Very informational post, AJ. I know I use fragments (frequently – see addict confession above) a lot in my writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever analyzed why. They just seem to *feel* right, and it what I’m trying to convey. Must ruminate.

    Faith – your comment regarding picture vs word thinkers is interesting and thought provoking, as well. I’m pretty sure I *think* in words, but I remember in Sensurround. When I remember things, I get the full immersion experience, including sound, taste, emotion, feeling, etc. When I’m envisioning what I want to write, I get something in-between. I *hear* the words to be written, but I’m also *there.*

  • Mindy and Faith, I completely agree that it makes sense to use more fragments when you are eiter writing in first person or in the kind of very limited third person which is extremely close to the character’s perspective. I love the “And the sun” sentence, by the way. Your teacher should be tied up with piano wire. Interesting that you (Faith) say you think more in individual words than sentences. I THINK I think in phrases, more than individual words but probably less than complete and complex sentences. Maybe I should have been a poet. Well, too late now…

    Scribe,
    I like your assessment of the difference between fantasy and literary fiction. Not sure what you mean by ‘frantic’–fragments? Or was there more which got cut?

  • AJ, it is never too late to become a poet. 🙂

  • Ken

    I agree with Faith and Mindy and AJ that its easier to get away with fragments when in the first person POV than the third. It ties in with Faith’s point about how a particular person thinks (Takes note: Figure out not only what, but in what way your characters think).

    After considering it for a while, it’s all about the pictures for me. If I’ve been to your house often enough to remember where it is, I can tell you exactly how to get there without ever mentioning a street name. Names, whats that? Look for the big red barn that’s standing like its had too much to drink. Turn left and keep going until you get to a “T” intersection and turn left again…it won’t be until the 10th time or so where the actual street names finally sink in and I’m still apt to describe it with names and images anyway.

    I think that the easiest place to use a fragment in the third person POV is in dialogue. I agree with AJ that you need to treat it like a spice (something like cayanne pepper) and use accordingly.

  • I find I use fragments most for reasons number 3 and 5 (although I use fragments in dialog slightly more frequently than AJ here suggests. And then, finally, like Mindy I use a lot more fragments in the actual prose if it’s in first person. The reason for that relates back to the Dialog thing. In the spoken word, fragments and non-sequitors are very normal and naturalistic, and I find dialog feels stilted if it’s forcibly without those quirks. (I think one avoids the boringness of too-realistic dialog by avoiding the filler that makes up the majority of spoken dialog: “Like, you know, um… uh…. well, what I mean to say is… umm, you know what I mean?”) Going first person in the narrative, I want to incorporate the spoken voice of the character into the narration.

    The problem is, people just don’t think in whole, complete sentences. And so, especially, if you’ve got something that’s first person, fragments are a useful tool for evoking the way the narrator actually thinks and speaks.

  • “frantic” = fragments = Thanks, AutoCorrect. 🙂

  • I love sprinkling in a few fragments to my work, particularly now that I’m writing first person and close-third person POV in urban fantasies. Fragments just seem to work in those contexts. I used them in my epic fantasy work, too, though with less frequency. Great post, A.J. Incredibly helpful; I love the idea of reading a paragraph backwards to search for unintended fragments.

  • Thanks all. I appreciate you weighing in, and I absolutely respect that some of us want to use fragments more than I’m recommending. In all such things, let your discretion be your tutor. Much of this is a matter of personal taste, but I do think it’s possible to have too much of a good thing and it might be worth remembering that some people can find lots of fragments irritating. I don’t think many people ever find complete sentences irritating, so it might be worth erring on the side of caution! 🙂

  • @Faith – Picture thinking must be why a lot of fragments are jarring to me and don’t seem to do what they’re intended to do, especially during action. I do think in picture, well, full color movie, actually, complete with angles, cuts, close-ins, wide angle narrative shots, etc. Watch a movie; that’s what’s going on in my head when I write. It does make it difficult to translate at times. It’s like writing a script after the movie’s already made, while you’re watching the thing. /@Faith 😉

    I rarely use fragments, except in dialogue. They always seem to have the opposite effect for me during action scenes, slowing them down as my eyes have to stop at each period. They act more like beats when I read them, like in scripts, and in that regard, are better used in the Darwen example. A case of where a fragment might hit me hardest in an action scene would be where a scene needs to jam to a halt. It’s like that scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya races through the door and gets hit in the guts with the dagger. If there was a fragment in the description, forcing me to stop and contemplate after all that action, that would be far more poignant to me and make the scene gel. It would force my eyes to stop and my head to realize the import of what just happened, bringing me down with a snap from the action to solidify on that one point. Then again, the same can be done with a super short sentence or two.

    I guess, for some, it’s a style choice to use them. For me, it’s a style choice to not use them. However, I do see how they can enhance a first person work, especially if the first person narration is more conversational in its approach. I only have one first person work, though unfinished, and I did add more fragments in that one.

  • Yay grammar posts!! Great set of instances for using fragments. Can I pass them on to my students?

    Fragments were very hard for me. I’d try them, then in editing my English prof thing would kick in and I’d take ’em out. I’m better at it now. I tend to use them to build up to something: “This was the moment she was to give in. The moment she would fall into his arms, protests dying on her lips, and be his. Gloriously, unrepentantly his.” Or to contrast with something: “It was her day. It should have been–was supposed to be–her day. Everyone would pay attention to her, and she would merit it. She would be graceful, witty, the perfect example of a deb coming out into the world. It was supposed to be perfect. But it was hell.” (Neither of these are from actual WIPs, just examples I thought of). So I guess it is a lot of #5. (I use fragments in dialogue when they’re natural, too. Especially in fights, which is #4, with rapid action).

  • Daniel and Pea,
    great examples and ideas. And yes, feel free to pass this along wherever it might be useful.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for this very comprehensive post. I think it’ll be a great tool for evaluating what I’m doing when I want to use fragments and whether or not it will work. I love the “Something big.”-type fragments, but, though I’d say I’m a thinker-in-words, I find I tend to write action with longer, many-short-clauses–type sentences (which is also not ideal). Sometimes fragments in action just trip me up because my brain has to stop for a moment and work harder to figure out what’s being said. Partly this is probably just a case of needing to learn better how to write action, and also how to figure out appropriate paragraph spacing. My paragraph spacing is awful.

  • Hep,
    I agree that sometimes even in action sequences teh fragment trips me up, and what is supposed to be very straightforward, fast and clear has the opposite effect on me because I have to read it a second time, once my brain has figured out there’s no main verb or whatever!

  • I think fragments can be useful in either third or first person POV. I agree with Hepseba, I loved the “something big” fragment. It seems to me the best fragments are adjectives. So emotive. So succinct.
    I think it comes down to punctuation. Like in poetry, caesuras can add emphasis. The rules of punctuation and grammar can restrict the feeling we try to convey in writing, so breaking the rules is sometimes necessary and often effective.

  • …every time you break a grammar rule you move your own goal posts, potentially disorienting, misleading or just plain pissing off your reader.

    You’re my hero. 😀

  • Not that I mean rules can’t be broken to excellent effect. Wrangling grammar is a gorgeous thing. I’m just so exhausted by those who can’t see the confusion they cause by not bothering to know the rules in the first place. Or worse, the ones who deliberately misuse the rules out of some desire to appear rebellious.

  • Thanks, Misty, agreed. I worry some times that we get so obsessed with our own writerly voices and capturing what we want to say that we forget about the poor sap who has to read it! Books enact a pact between author and reader. If authors screw too much with the basic communicative codes that connect them to their readers, they violate that pact. Before breaking those rules, take a breath. Be aware. Be cautious. That’s all I’m saying…

  • I had a similar experience to Mindy’s, but with happier results. Mr. Sherwood (really, that was his name) handed back my 9th grade essay on summer vacation covered in red ink. I was appalled and immediately argued artistic license. He very gently resettled his coke bottle glasses on his face and agreed that artistry was the true end of writing and that I should not quell the muse. He then pointed out that it was his job to ensure that I knew correct grammar as well as learning to express myself, and offered me a deal. I could break any and every grammar rule I liked in future papers, so long as I added a little footnote explaining what rule I was breaking and why it was better this way. Bless his heart, he lived up to his bargain too. And I learned to be a much more thoughtful writer.

    Thanks for the post AJ!

  • Love that, Sarah. Decent teachers, eh? Gotta love ’em.

  • The Mathelete

    As always, thanks for a great post, AJ! This was a great follow-on to the discussion on your post last week.

    Sometimes you fine guys and gals of MW are just the mirror I need held up to (shoved into) my face. At the expense of being a bit repetitious to those of you who are regulars around here, I just finished my first ever first person POV manuscript a few months ago. It was a new genre for me and a new POV, and I noticed that my style changed in phenomenal and unexpected ways. Not always ways I liked. See what I did there? Yep, I do that a lot. Because I’m writing this in first person. Again? Mercy!

    And I finally realized why I do that. First, as Faith and others mentioned, my brain doesn’t think in complete sentences. I think I’m a phrase thinker more than individual words, but the phrases resemble bullet points more than prose. I still think that some of that helps with the flow, but I think I’ll have to take Faith’s advice and try to scrub it up a bit more vigorously than my 3rd person stuff in the editing phase. It’s funny how completely different style and usage issues arise with a simple change of POV. I shall have to be mindful in the future 🙂 Thank you all.

  • TwilightHero

    Some people think in pictures and then have to translate those picture-thoughts into words, so that the writing / thinking is actually the second strand or second part of the communication process. A re-write, if you will.

    Faith and Daniel – cool! This is exactly how I think of things – in pictures, right down to the shifting camera angles. I ‘see’ scenes in my head, apply context and emotional value – the soundtrack – and then layer in sound effects, physical sensations, etc. I’ve always found it odd hearing about people thinking in sentences, full-length or otherwise, because that isn’t how it works for me at all, though I never bothered examining what does work for me. Guess I wasn’t sure how to put it into words 🙂

    AJ – I agree: too many fragments can make your work feel unprofessional. I do sprinkle them about for points 3, 5 and occasionally 6, and since I prefer a close third-person perspective – does that count as point 3? – but only as a stylistic choice. I would never use them writing third-person omniscient. It just wouldn’t feel right. Great post, as always.

    Am I the only one who noticed point 6 comes before 5? 😛