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Grammar resource: Fragments

“...if a sentence is missing a verb or a subject, then it is likely to be incomplete. The result is sometimes called a 'sentence fragment'.”

Christine Sinclair Grammar: A Friendly Approach

Fragments (incomplete sentences) come in two forms:

  1. Missing subjects or verbs (a sentence needs both).
  2. Clauses (groups of words) that begin with a subordinate conjunction (although, since, despite, because, in order that, unless etc.) left to stand alone (without a main clause that they are dependent on to make sense).

Missing subjects/verbs

For English speakers, these are quite easy to spot as they don’t ‘sound right’ by themselves. If English is your second language, they may be harder to spot.

A subject performs the action of the sentence, a verb describes the action or state happening in the sentence.

For example in the sentence ‘The stressed student writes a poor essay’, the stressed student is the subject and writes is the verb. In the sentence ‘The elderly cancer patient became unhappy’, the elderly cancer patient is the subject and became is the verb.

If you miss out the subject: writes a poor essay or became unhappy you are left with a fragment.

If you miss out the verb: The stressed student or The elderly cancer patient you are also left with a fragment.

Note: Verbs that end with –ing do not work as complete verbs, so even though phrases like the company succeeding have both a verb and a subject they are incomplete fragments if standing alone.

Subordinate clauses standing alone

In written English, we use a lot of subordinate clauses – clauses which need a main clause to complete the point. Subordinate clauses always follow words or phrases that suggest the clause is dependent on other information for its sense to be fully understood. These are either subordinate conjunctions (although, where, despite, since, as a result etc.), or relative pronouns (which, that, whether etc.)

Examples: 

There has recently been a ‘creative turn’ which means that the language associated with creativity is changing.

Social constructionism is also referred to as social constructivism although some writers argue they are not synonymous.

Where a degree programme is more vocational, enabling students to take the next step is already an important part of the curriculum.

If a subordinate clause is left to stand alone, you will be left with a fragment. In the examples above you can see how these need more information to complete the thought:

Which means that the language associated with creativity is changing.

Although some writers argue they are not synonymous.

Where a degree programme is more vocational.

Note: A variation on this is to have a clause that starts with an –ing word standing alone. For example: Having considered all the options or Beginning with the most important issue. These are also fragments.

Mending sentence fragments

In order to mend a sentence fragment, you need to add the missing elements to the sentence. For missing subjects/verbs it is obvious what is missing - the subject or verb. For subordinate clauses standing alone, it is the main clause that is missing and needs to be included within the sentence.

Punctuating sentences with subordinate clauses

The punctuation in a sentence with both a subordinate and main clause depends on the order of the clauses. This is demonstrated by both the words and punctuation in the following two sentences:

You do not need any additional punctuation if the main clause comes first.

If the subordinate clause comes first, a comma is needed to separate the clauses.

Remember, subordinate clauses are the ones that start with a subordinate conjunction (although, where, if, despite, since, as a result etc) or a relative pronoun (which, that, whether etc).

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