Fragment exceptions

 

Reduced-form sentences

Okay, you can argue that most incomplete sentences are just reduced forms. You can certainly go there. For example, when you say, "a hyperactive iguana," you can argue that it's just a reduced form of "A hyperactive iguana is chasing me." We don't know your life.

But that's the thing: we don't know your life. So when you write incomplete (or reduced-form) sentences that make sense in a certain context, just make sure to actually provide that context...if (and only if) incomplete sentences are stylistically acceptable. By that, we mean that these usually don't belong in an academic essay. Just sayin'.

In this section, we'll focus on situations that generally don't need as much context.

Imperative sentences

Read!

The most common subject-less sentence is the imperative sentence. We're talking "Run!" "Go!" "Stop!" and the like. Why are they okay even though they're just verbs with no subjects? Because they have an implied subject: you.

Interrogative words

What?

Yep, you got it. Interrogative words (like who, what, where, when, why, how) are reduced-form sentences because the subject and verb are implied. "What?" usually = "What (is that)?" or "What (did you say)?" Implication goes a long way.

"(The implied situation is) Adjective!"

Perfect.

Yep, that's a reduced-form sentence. It's technically a declarative sentence because, once again, we're implying the subject, and the verb is pretty much always "be." This sentence is basically a reduced form of "That's perfect." or "This is perfect." or some variation of these. Sure, we can't really know the subject out of context, but no matter when you say it, there's always one implied.

"Here (is an implied object)."

When you hand something to someone, you might say, "Here." No subject. No verb. But…still a sentence? Yep. Well, sort of. It's really a reduced form of "Here (is an implied object)." If you're holding out a slinky as you say it, it's implied that you mean, "Here's a slinky. (Take it, maybe.)"

Exclamations

Exclamations are the most primal expressions ever. We love 'em. Exclamations are usually just when you see or think of something and name it excitedly. You might see Mort the pug crossing the street, turn to your boyfriend, and say "Mort!" What you meant was "There's Mort!" but you were so excited, you couldn't even get the whole sentence out. Since there and is are implied, just the pug's name counts as a sentence on its own.

Or maybe you just got turned down for a fancy job. Ouch. You fall to your knees, dramatically look up towards the sky, and angrily spew, "Soulless big business conglomerates!" as everything around you spins out of control. (Hey, a dramatic exclamation calls for a dramatic situation.) In this case, nothing's really reduced; you just said what you said to express your distaste towards it. Kind of like how Malfoy disgustedly mutters "Potter" under his breath.

But there are also exclamations that are literally just used as exclamations, like "Huzzah!" and "Yay!" and "Wow!" and "Yikes." These words don't really have a semantic meaning (you can't describe a yikes), but they're used to express certain emotions.

Onomatopoeia

Crash! Boom! Click! Squish! Pop! These are words that attempt to imitate the sound that they're describing. They're really not sentences in the linguistic sense, but we'll throw 'em here for good measure.

 

Examples

"On Dan's first trip to New York."

What happened on Dan's first trip to New York? We may never know unless we fix this sentence fragment. It's missing both a subject and a verb. So let's put one of each in here. How about this? On Dan's first trip to New York, he visited Ellis Island, the Empire State Building, and Times Square. Much better. On Dan's second trip to New York, he watched the local wildlife scurry around in the subway tunnels. Look, Ma: a rat!

"The dejected third baseman."

In this fragment, we have a subject, the third baseman, but we have no idea what he did because there's no verb. So let's add one: The dejected third baseman threw his glove on the ground and stamped on it like an angry baby. That's some terrible sportsmanship, but now it's a wonderfully complete sentence.

"Left the carton of orange juice on the counter."

This fragment is missing a subject. Who left the carton out on the counter? If we add a subject—Rosie left the carton of orange juice on the counter—then we have a complete sentence, and we know who owes us some fresh juice. We hate you, Rosie.

 

Common mistakes

Most grammar gods and goddesses agree that the occasional fragment is okay if it serves a purpose. In creative writing, such as narrative or descriptive essays, fragments can be deployed on purpose in order to create a whole host of effects: emphasis, momentum, mood, and so on.

In fact, you may have noticed that Shmoop uses fragments from time to time. Because we do. See? That last sentence was a fragment. That's because we're communicating to you in an informal tone. It's a style choice. And Shmoop is nothing if not stylish… with the hand-embroidered Snuggies to prove it.

Having said that, we'll guess that your teachers and future professors are going to expect you to write in a much more formal tone for most of your academic papers, so you should learn to recognize fragments when you see them—and you should avoid producing them.

Save those artful fragments for your first novel, and make sure you scowl broodingly in your author photo. (Or wear your coolest white suit, loudly patterned shirt, and giant pocket square.)

Yep.

Hey, look what we did. "Yes." is an acceptable one-word sentence, but it's not the only one. Think of things like "Run!"—there's a verb, for sure, but there's also an implied subject: you. Same goes for "Shut up!" although "Quiet!" doesn't quite make the cut—you'd need be in front of it first.

 

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