For a sentence to be a sentence, it must contain a subject and a verb. Toby barked is a complete sentence, as it contains a subject, Toby, and a verb, barked. A sentence is a sentence if it has at least one independent clause, which is a cluster of words that are “independent” of other phrases or clauses to form a grammatically correct sentence.
A fragment is created when the sentence lacks a subject, a verb, or both. Instead of an independent clause or complete sentence, this creates a fragment, or a group of words that require other words, phrases, or clauses to make it complete.
Walking down the block.
Who or what is walking down the block? We don’t know by the information given. This sentence is incomplete, as it lacks a subject.
The man was walking down the block.
Now it’s a complete sentence, or independent clause. It’s a full thought and a complete sentence.
The team when the others lost.
What did the team do? This again is an incomplete sentence, as the crucial verb is missing, creating a fragment.
The team won when the others lost.
The verb, “won” now completes the sentence.
Sometimes you can ask yourself if the sentence forms a complete thought, but sometimes spotting fragments can be tricky. Some fragments are actually modifying the sentence, and a reader often reattaches the sentence together, even though the punctuation demands they are separate.
He got his car running again. By fixing the oil gasket.
The first sentence in the example above is an independent clause, or complete sentence. However, the second sentence is a fragment and cannot stand alone without help. It is dependent on other words to form a complete sentence, so it should be attached to the previous sentence (independent clause).
He got his car running again by fixing the oil gasket.
One way to test if a sentence is a fragment is to see if you can rephrase the word group into a yes or no question.
She bought the chocolate from the vending machine.
? Did she buy the chocolate from the vending machine?
Answer: YES – so this is NOT a fragment.
Bought the sandwich to eat after class.
? Did ____ buy the sandwich to eat after class?
Answer: The question has no subject, so it is a fragment.
Dave bought the sandwich to eat after class.
The manager hiring workers for the night shift.
(HINT: avoid beginning the question with is/are or has/have.)
? Does the manager hiring workers for the night shift?
Answer: The word, hiring, cannot act as the verb in this form.
The manager is hiring workers for the night shift.
Be aware that even very long sentences can be fragments, as we see in the example below:
Some films like Twister, which had cows flying through the air, cars hurdling into the sky, and houses exploding into toothpicks with high-tech special effects.
Don’t be fooled by long sentences. Let’s run our test:
? Do some films like Twister, which had cows flying through the air, cars hurdling into the sky, and houses exploding into toothpicks with high-tech special effects?
Answer: Do some films. . . what? We don’t have a question, so it’s a fragment. Note that the verbs in the relative clause beginning with “which” (flying, hurdling, exploding) are not the main verbs of the sentence.
Even though in academic and business writing, fragments should be carefully edited out, creative writers and advertisers often use fragments as a creative device. Fragments are a part of normal speech patterns and often a stylistic choice when writing dialogue. Writers who use fragments purposefully do so because they know the rule they are breaking.
“Ridiculous! Utterly ridiculous!”
“No can do. Too much work to do. Terrible, really.”
Mice in the house? Try Mice-B-Gone!
Turn the following fragments into sentences. Can you identify what makes them fragments?
1. In plenty of time for dinner.
2. A tune most people know.
3. Without any fear at all.
4. Discovered by the police detective.
5. For example, next Sunday.
6. Predicting the weather even with complex instruments.
7. A book I read when I was a child.
8. Hanging around famous people.
9. Making some mistakes.
10. To sit together at dinner.
(from Bedford St. Martin Exercise Central)