To fragment. Or not. The question.
Sentence fragments. What is one, exactly? Well, it’s reasonably simple – a sentence must contain a main clause. A main clause consists of an independent subject and a verb and expresses a single idea.
Once upon a time, students were taught to diagram a sentence. I escaped this – by the time I was in Primary school, the educators had decided that creativity should be encouraged over grammar. I’ve learnt my grammar through learning French – sad, but true! Diagramming sentences can be a useful tool for a writer because the actual diagram shows just how much weight the sentence carries. (You can read more about diagramming sentences here.)
Most sentence fragments lack the verb. Sentence fragments. See – no verb. But verbs are the muscles of language. ‘Without a verb, a group of words can never hope to be anything more than a fragment, a hopelessly incomplete sentence, a eunuch or dummy of a grammatical expression’. Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Transitive Vampire.
Some sentence fragments lack the subject – the who or what the sentence is about. If you remove the subject of the centre, you’re relying on the reader guessing what the sentence is about. We’re talking about sentence fragments. Discovering their flaws. Entertaining their possibilities. Illuminating their value. Who or what is discovering? This would be stronger expressed like this: We’re talking about sentence fragments – their flaws, possibilities and value.
Sentence fragments are ‘shards of thought, shadows of ideas, shams in the prose department.’ Contance Hale, Sin and Syntax. They disturb me. Sometimes this disturbance is a good thing. A sentence fragment can emphasise a point you want to make. It can indicate a character’s resoluteness or confusion. It can add some spicy informality. Or not. A sentence fragment can add lyricism. It can pile up a list of strong nouns for effect. Cormac McCarthy uses sentence fragments in his novel, The Road, often as brief poetic illuminations that flare against the unrelenting landscape of the narrative. Sometimes he uses them to list what was lost or what is no longer needed in this post-apocalyptic world. The brevity works for McCarthy – reflecting the halting communication between father and son and the need to ration everything, even words.
When I stumble on sentence fragments in my own work, I tend to make them whole. I like verbs. I like to know what the sentence is about. My guideline? Never use them inadvertently. Argue with what is lost and what gained and make them earn their place in your narrative.