Not all sentences are privileged enough to grow up in a warm, loving home with supportive clauses and structured guidance. Some are forced to grow up on the syntax-streets, forced to figure out this crazy grammatical world with nothing but their guile and wit.
Sometimes these sentences don’t learn the rules, never understand why they should fit some mold invented by a system that abandoned them. They grow up functional, sometimes even beautiful, but ultimately incomplete, lacking in something baser, something important.
These sentences are the lost souls of the written world. They are the broken. They are the fragments.
A fragment, grammatically, is a subordinate clause turned into a full sentence. Think of it like a sandwich. A normal sentence is bread, meat, tomato, lettuce, mayo. A fragment is two slices of bread that someone is trying to pass off as a sandwich. It can contains nouns and verbs and prepositions and clauses, but is always missing a main subject (lunchmeat and veggies).
They should sound/read weird to an trained ear/eye, because they are not complete thoughts.
A fragment, practically, is something like this: “He stabbed blindly at the shadows in the alleyway, fear guiding his hand. A slash of luck, a jab of hope. He prayed to be the one who got out of this alive.”
There are no rules for fragments. No real, official, decided upon rules, at least. Some people say to use them as you see fit, wherever you see fit. Some people say to avoid them entirely. Many agree that they’re fine as interjections. Others say they shouldn’t be relied upon to convey important information. Other others say that should only be used to convey important information.
Oliver’s Fragmentation Rules:
1. A fragment should have a direct relation to the sentence before it
A fragment is an innately odd structure to read, so it needs to have a strong relationship to whatever it is modifying for the reader to make sense of it. Trying to tie a fragment to a sentence earlier in the paragraph may confuse your reader and cause them to stop their forward progress to go back and figure out what you’re talking about. Trying to reference a sentence that comes after the fragment is equally confusing, as you’re trying to connect to an idea that hasn’t happened yet.
Like a resumptive modifier, a fragment should “resume” the thought, verb action, or direction of the sentence directly before it. Unlike a resumptive modifier, it doesn’t need to mirror the noun or adjective that ends said previous sentence.
“Oliver wrote into the night, his fingers flailing wildly over careworn keys. Wrote and wove those stories that refused to stay trapped in the prison of his mind.”
I’m referencing the main verb of the previous complete sentence, so my fragment makes sense and adds context/new information that the reader can quickly assimilate and understand.
2. A fragment should be used intentionally
A fragment is nothing but a normal old subordinate (dependent) clause, which means that it could easily be attached to and made part of a traditional sentence. Most of the time, you want your subordinate clause to be part of the main sentence, for simplicity’s sake.
But sometimes, for effect, you want that clause to stand alone. Carry its own weight. March on defiantly.
Syntactically, they are quick and shattered, making them great for conveying panic, stream of consciousness, or frenetic movement. If you’ve got a character who is freaking out because he just witnessed a giant squid-crab eat a nuclear submarine whole, using fragments can syntactically support the action of the narrative. If you’re writing an essay where you are recalling some distant, fading memories of your childhood, using fragments can recreate the jarring phenomenon of trying to rebuild a scene from memory.
Fragments are great, but make sure you are using them intentionally for effect, and not just because you’re not sure how to include the information in the sentence. There is nothing worse than an unintentional fragment in the middle of an otherwise perfectly fluent sentence.
3. A fragment should not be an aside
If you haven’t noticed, I love asides. They are a great way to express an opinion (or interject something new!) without going on a rant. They tend to break the fourth wall which can be good or bad, depending on your format and genre.
Fragments however, do not make good asides. An aside tends to be non sequitur (which translates to “it does not follow”). If you turn a fragment into an aside, you run the risk of changing the focus or message of a certain section of writing.
A fragment reads as if it is part of the main-line narrative, unlike a phrase set off in parentheses or in between em dashes. This will cause your reader to view it as part of the whole (not just added on information) which might stop them dead in their mental tracts if it takes them out of or away from whatever scene they were reading.
Leave the asides to their little parenthetical prisons. Fragments should be free.