What Is a Sentence Fragment? A Guide For Writers

There are some mistakes that you should aim to avoid in contemporary writing. Read on to find out what is a sentence fragment in this article.

It’s often tricky to find mistakes when proofreading your writing, especially if you’re doing so after a long day at work or when you’re pressed for time. For example, a common grammar mistake writers sometimes make is writing incomplete sentences, referred to as sentence fragments. To help you recognize these errors when proofreading your work, I’ve decided to dedicate an article to the sentence fragment. 

Why Should You Care About Sentence Fragments?

What is a sentence fragment?
A sentence fragment is a group of difficult words to interpret which does not make a complete sentence

Most people’s eyes glaze over when you mention the term English grammar. Soul-destroying lessons in which you battled to stay awake while your high-school English teacher kept stressing that splitting your infinitives is a grave sin are best forgotten. However, it’s necessary, from time to time, to remind yourself of specific essential grammar rules. This is especially pertinent if you write or teach for a living or are a student who does academic writing.

A considerable percentage of professionals, though, write in their everyday work lives, whether this is in the form of e-mails, reports, or proposals. Besides the fact that a text littered with grammatical errors comes across as unprofessional and sloppy, incorrect grammar can also cloud meaning and lead to ineffective communication in the workplace. A sentence fragment is a group of difficult words to interpret which does not make a complete sentence. Since a sentence fragment is not a complete thought, it’s easy for readers of your work to misunderstand what you meant to convey.

What Does a Complete Sentence Look Like?

Before I explain how you can identify and fix sentence fragments in your work, it may be helpful first to recap what a complete sentence looks like. In short, a sentence is a grammatical construction that expresses a complete idea. A complete sentence consists of two main parts:

  • The subject: This part of the sentence is typically a noun, such as “my cat,” or a pronoun, such as “it” or “she.” A noun phrase, such as “My brother’s best friend,” can also function as a subject. A subject tells the reader what the sentence is about or shows who or what is doing the action.
  • Predicate: The second essential part of a complete sentence is the predicate, which is the sentence’s portion containing the verb. If the sentence is short and to the point, the predicate may consist of a verb only. In other cases, the predicate may consist of more than one word, such as “will sing,” or a verb phrase, such as “is always greener on the other side.”

Here are a few examples of complete sentences:

  • The cute dog jumped onto my lap. In this example, “The cute dog” is the sentence’s subject, and “jumped onto my lap” is the predicate.
  • The choir from South Africa won the singing competition. In this example, “The choir from South Africa” is the subject, and “won the singing competition” is the predicate.
  • Loving myself is the greatest gift of all. In this example, “Loving myself” is the subject, and “is the greatest gift of all” is the predicate.

Don’t be fooled by the length of a group of words. A complete sentence can consist of two words only, such as “I am.” In this example, “I” is the subject, and “am” is the predicate, which means that it’s a full sentence that expresses a complete idea.

Sentence Clauses

Every sentence contains at least one clause. This means that a short sentence such as “Jessica is riding her bike” is one sentence that consists of one clause and, more specifically, an independent clause. As with a sentence, an independent clause expresses a complete idea and can stand by itself. A dependent clause, however, does not make sense by itself, and it cannot stand alone. Let’s look at a few examples to clarify things:

  • Chris has gone to the shop. This is another example of a short sentence that consists of one clause.
  • Chris has gone to the shop and he’s going to the nursery. This sentence consists of two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. As you can see, both the first clause, “Chris has gone to the shop,” and the second clause, “and he’s going to the nursery,” can stand on their own since they express complete thoughts. This type of sentence is referred to as a compound sentence.
  • Because of the sale, Chris went to the shop. In this example, “Chris went to the shop” is the main clause, and it can function independently. However, “Because of the sale” cannot stand alone since it doesn’t express a complete idea. Therefore, such clauses are dependent or subordinating, typically preceded by a subordinating conjunction, such as “although” or “because.” These types of sentences are called complex sentences.

Subordinating clauses are types of sentence fragments. Let’s take a closer look at what precisely a sentence fragment is.

How To Identify a Sentence Fragment

A sentence fragment is a phrase that doesn’t form a complete idea but is incorrectly treated in a text as an independent, complete sentence. Here are a few examples of sentence fragments:

  • Went to the department store yesterday. – When reading this sentence fragment, you may ask yourself, “Who went to the department store” because the subject is missing from the clause.
  • Studying every day. My life these days. – Although one can glean the meaning from these two consecutive segment fragments, using them as independent complete sentences is grammatically incorrect. For example, the subject is missing in the first fragment, while the second segment doesn’t have a verb.
  • After I finish the project. –  Although this clause contains both a subject and a predicate, it still can’t function as an independent clause because of the subordinating conjunction “after.” So in this instance, the question begs, what happens after the subject finishes the project? This segment fragment, therefore, is an incomplete thought, although it has both a subject and a verb.

Why Do Sentence Fragments Happen?

So, how do sentence fragments happen? In some cases, sentence fragments are groups of words that have somehow strayed away from the main clause. In other cases, writers omit words by accident, thinking that they’ve constructed a complete sentence when it’s an incomplete sentence. This happens more quickly than you think.

When writing a text, you may erroneously assume that your reader automatically understands the context, or your train of thought, when they don’t. From a more technical perspective, fragments commonly occur because of misusing subordinators, prepositions, or gerunds. Sentence fragments often arise because writers start sentences with these types of words.

Types of Sentence Fragments

To help you identify sentence fragments in your work, I think it may be helpful to know that there are different types of segment fragments. Here’s a short overview of the various types of sentence fragments you may encounter in your written texts:

The Gerund Phrase Fragment

A gerund is a verbal, which is a grammatical construction in which a verb is treated as a noun. A gerund always ends in “-ing,” such as in “running” and “cooking.” In a complete sentence, the correct usage of the gerund may look like this: Cooking is my favorite pastime. However, sentence fragments often occur because of the incorrect usage of the gerund. Here’s an example: Running in a marathon. In this example, one is left wondering who is running the marathon or what running a marathon is like.

The Participial Phrase Fragment

A participle is a verb that functions as an adjective. Forming a participle involves adding an “-ing,” “-ed,” or “-en” to the end of a verb, such as in “shooting contest.” When a group of words is introduced with a participle, it’s called a participial phrase.

For example, in the sentence “The girl running over the street was nearly hit by a car,” the participial phrase “running over the street” modifies “the girl.” A sentence fragment can occur when you treat a participial fragment as a complete sentence. Here’s an example: Shaking their fists ferociously. Once again, one is left wondering who is shaking their fists or what happens while they’re shaking their fists.

The Prepositional Phrase Fragment

As you probably know, a preposition is a word that shows the relationship between words. A prepositional phrase is a group of words preceded by a preposition and ends with a noun or a pronoun. Here’s an example: He hid beneath the blanket. When you place a prepositional phrase on its own, you end up with a sentence fragment, such as “At the bottom of the lake.” The question begs, what’s at the bottom of the lake, or what happens there?

Dependent Clause Fragment

As I explained earlier in this article, a dependent clause cannot function independently, even though it contains both a subject and a verb. Often, writers make the mistake of treating dependent clauses like complete sentences. You can easily recognize a dependent clause because it always begins with a subordinating conjunction. Here’s an example: Because she never did her homework. In this instance, the reader doesn’t know the result of the girl never doing her homework. The idea is not complete.

The Missing Verb Fragment

Another common error is omitting a verb or a part of the verb in a sentence. For example, if you look at the sentence “The bus twenty minutes late,” it’s clear that the verb “was” or “is” is missing. When you leave out a part of the verb, as in “The dishes piling up in the kitchen sink,” and use this clause as a complete sentence, you end up with a sentence fragment. In the last example, you’d either have to place “was” in front of “piling,” or you’d have to complete the sentence with another clause, for example, The dishes piling up in the kitchen sink were starting to stink.

The Missing Subject Fragment

The common type of sentence fragment is one in which there’s no subject. Here’s an example: Went for supper after the meeting. The reader is left wondering who went for supper after the meeting.

How To Fix Sentence Fragments

Although many so-called traditional grammatical errors are often overlooked and allowed in contemporary written English, sentence fragments remain an issue because they obscure meaning. For this reason, it’s advisable to recognize and fix these errors in your work. You can do so by carefully proofreading what you’ve written. Here are a few quick fixes that you can use:

Add the Fragment To the Main Clause

The first remedy for a sentence fragment is to add it to a relevant, complete sentence. You must add a comma, conjunction, semi-colon, colon, or combination. Here’s an example:

  • Incorrect: Waiting for the bus. I like to listen to music.
  • Correct: I like to listen to music while waiting for the bus.

Add a Missing Verb or Subject

If a missing verb or subject causes the sentence fragment, you must add these missing words to create a complete sentence. Here’s an example:

  • Incorrect: Went to the theater yesterday with my sister.
  • Correct: I went to the theater yesterday with my sister.

Add the Subordinate Clause To the Main Clause

If you’ve used a subordinate clause as a loose-standing sentence, you can quickly fix the error by adding the subordinate clause to the relevant main clause. Here’s an example:

  • Incorrect: I am so tired today. Because we stayed out late.
  • Correct: I am so tired today because we stayed out late.

Note that no comma is needed when you’re adding a subordinate clause to the main clause.

If you still need help, our guide to grammar and syntax explains more.