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What is a sentence fragment?

Man thinking laptop

What is a sentence fragment?

Something we come across occasionally while editing copy at Engage Web is a sentence that begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, but it doesn’t quite function as a sentence. Usually, this is because it’s what we refer to as a sentence fragment.

When you come across a fragment, it’s usually fairly easy to work out what the writer meant. Nonetheless, they are unsightly to read, and show a writer’s grasp of structure and understanding of grammar are not as they should be. Here, we’re going to look at what makes a sentence incomplete, and how it can be fixed with some minor changes.

What makes a sentence a sentence?

A sentence can be thought of as a complete idea, and you want to connect the words within that idea to one another in a way that makes each word’s function clear. Grammatically speaking, all sentences should contain a verb, as this connects the nouns in the sentence to one another.

The simplest and probably most common sentence structure is subject-verb-object. An example of this is below.

“James opens the door.”

Here, “opens” is the verb, and we have two nouns – “James” and “the door”. The easiest way to work out which of these nouns is the subject and which is the object is to consider which of them is doing the action, and which of them is having the action done to it. We can tell that James is the “doer” in this case, so he is the subject of the verb, and this means the door is the object.

Any subject-verb-object can be flipped to object-verb-subject, as in the below:

“The door is opened by James.”

Placing the object noun first in the sentence is known as using the passive voice. Some writers and editors will say this should be avoided, but it can be appropriate and effective. In fact, I just did it myself by using the verb clause “is known as” rather than writing the clumsier “we know this as using the passive voice.”

A sentence can omit either the object or the subject and still make grammatical sense, such as:

“James runs.”

“The ball is kicked.”

We can also replace these nouns with pronouns, such as “he” instead of “James”, and “it” instead of “the ball”.

It’s often said that the shortest grammatically correct sentence is “I am.” However, it is technically possible to have a sentence that consists solely of a verb, like the commands “go!”, “do!” or “be!” In these cases, it is implied that the pronoun “you” is subject of the sentence, so you should be the one who is going, doing or being.

To summarise, a verb is a necessity in a sentence, and almost all sentences should have at least one noun or pronoun.

Why do fragments creep in?

In most cases, I find that fragments are a result of writers referring back to the sentence before, but not developing their next sentence fully.

In academic and journalistic writing, we see fragments as bad style, but it should be stressed that in more informal styles and to get a specific tone of voice across, there may be instances where they’re acceptable. From reading to my daughter, one series of books I’ve found to be full of fragments is Roger Hargreaves’ much loved “Mr. Men” books, where you constantly come across writing like the below from the “Mr. Happy” book:

“There in the trunk of one of the very tall trees was a door. Not a very large door, but nevertheless a door.”

The second sentence here is a fragment as it doesn’t contain a verb. It could be tagged onto the sentence before with an em dash (—), or could be developed into its own sentence, such as “It was a not a very large door…”

The Mr. Men books are aimed at young children and use simple words in a quirky and conversational style, however, so let’s not hammer Hargreaves too much over this. What’s worse is when you see it in formal writing, such as the below:

“There was nobody at the bus stop. Which was unusual.”

“I didn’t go to school today. Because it was Saturday.”

You’ll note that the second sentence in both these quotes does contain a verb, but they are still fragments, because they are what’s known as “dependent clauses”. They depend on the sentence before to make sense, so we need to either make them into part of the previous sentence or develop them into sentences in their own right.

The simplest way to fix the above two sentences is to replace the full stops with commas. Alternatively, we can change them to “This was unusual” or “That’s because it was Saturday”.

Often, we can read text and know that something about it isn’t right, but being able to break down the grammar of a sentence and explain why it doesn’t work is the best way to highlight the problem and learn how not to repeat it. At Engage Web, we strive to provide copy that’s not only grammatically correct, but engaging, sharable and relevant to what your audience is looking for. To discover more about our content development service, why not get in touch?

John Murray
  • Yes, a semicolon can also be used. I suggested an em dash as it’s probably more common these days and a little less formal, but semicolons work if used correctly. Maybe semicolons deserve a blog of their own? 🙂

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