A fragment is a single word, a phrase, or a dependent clause standing alone as a sentence. It is considered fragmentary rather than a grammatical sentence because it is not grammatically independent and may not contain a subject and a finite verb. In formal writing fragments are generally a fault, though occasionally valuable for emphasis or variety. Before looking at examples of such positive fragments, we need to understand the common forms that fragments may take and how, when they are a fault rather than a virtue, they may be corrected.
As an instance of a single-word fragment, consider this answer to a question:
Do you understand? Perfectly.
If we were to see the word perfectly printed all by itself, we should be puzzled. We know what the word means, but completely isolated it makes no sense. It is not grammatically meaningful. Of course we rarely encounter words in such utter isolation. Usually they occur in the context of other words (or of clarifying social situations), and we can easily supply what is needed to complete the meaning:
[I understand] perfectly.
Fragments in composition are less likely to be single words than phrases or clauses, usually modifiers detached from the words they modify. Three very common cases are the participial phrase, the adjectival clause, and the adverbial clause; each is italicized in the examples below:
DETACHED PARTICIPIAL PHRASE: DETACHED ADJECTIVAL CLAUSE:
DETACHED ADVERBIAL CLAUSE:
I saw her. Going down the street.
Everyone left except John. Who decided to stay.
It was very late. When the party broke up.
Awkward fragments such as these can be fixed in one of two ways. Either the fragment may be made part of the sentence where it acts as a
1 saw her going down the street.
Everyone left except John, who decided to stay.
Or, the fragment may be kept as a separate statement but made grammatically complete, either by removing the word or words which render it subordinate or by supplying, if necessary, a subject and verb:
saw her. She was going down the street. Everyone left except John. He decided to stay. It was very late. The party broke up.
Though these alternative corrections result in grammatical sentences, they have slight differences in meaning. ("Slight" differences in meaning are often the difference between good and mediocre writing.) Turning the fragment into a complete sentence gives it more emphasis.
A final type of fragment is the verbless statement:
All people, whether they live in the city or the country.
Here modifiers surround a noun ("people"). But this noun, presumably the intended subject of a sentence, has no verb; the writer never predicates anything about "people." Cases like this may require more extensive revision. Sometimes, if the noun is followed by a modifying clause, the verb of the clause may be adapted as the main verb:
In this instance, the correction is too simpleminded to be what the writer intended. He or she needs to think out the idea and supply an appropriate predication, perhaps something like:
All people, whether they live in the city or the country, want the conveniences of modern life.
Fragments are very likely to be awkward and unclear when they are unintended, the result of carelessness or uncertainty about what a grammatical sentence is. But used skillfully, they are eye-catching, unusual, and emphatic:
"Many a man," said Speer, "has been haunted by the nightmare that one day nations might be dominated by technical means. That nightmare was almost realized in Hitler's totalitarian system." Almost, but not quite. Aldous Huxley
Sweeping criticism of this type—like much other criticism—throws less light on the subject than on the critic himself. A light not always impressive. F. L Lucas
Obviously, the effectiveness of fragments like these depends upon their being uncommon. It is best, then, to employ fragments very occasionally in formal composition, and only when you wish to draw attention to the idea they express.
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