How to Avoid Writing Sentence Fragments

By Geraldine Woods

In formal writing, or if you are writing to impress someone, such as your English grammar instructor or your boss, you should avoid using sentence fragments. They lack the clarity of complete sentences, and they sound less professional.

Many writers use incomplete sentences, or fragments, here and there. Especially now in the Electronic Media Age, quick cuts and short comments are the rule. Everyone today, particularly young people, is much more comfortable with fragments than our elderly relatives were.

The most common type of fragment uses the words and, or, but, and nor. These words are conjunctions, that you can use to combine two complete sentences (with two complete thoughts) into one longer sentence:

Eggworthy went to his doctor for a cholesterol check, and then he scrambled home.

Nowadays, more and more writers begin sentences with and, or, but, and nor, especially in informal writing or for dramatic effect. For example, the previous sentence may be turned into

Eggworthy went to his doctor for a cholesterol check. And then he scrambled home.

Beginning sentences with and, but, or, and nor is still not quite acceptable in formal English grammar. If you see a fragment beginning with one of these words in the error-recognition portion of a standardized test, consider it incorrect English. When you’re writing an essay, you should also avoid fragments.

Another common error is to write a fragment that lacks a complete thought. This sort of fragment usually begins with a subordinate conjunction. Don’t let the number of words in sentence fragments fool you. Not all sentence fragments are short, though some are. Decide by meaning, not by length.

Here are some examples of this type of sentence fragment, so you know what to avoid:

When it rained pennies from heaven

As if he were king of the world

After the ball was over but before it was time to begin the first day of the rest of your life and all those other clichés that you hear every day in the subway on your way to work

Whether Al likes it or not

Because I said so

Whether you like it or not, and despite the fact that you don’t like it, although I am really sorry that you are upset

If hell freezes over

and so on.

Can you tell which sentence is a sentence fragment? Which is a complete sentence? Which is a comma splice (a run-on)?

Sentence 1. Cedric sneezed.

Sentence 2. Because Cedric sneezed in the middle of the opera, just when the main character removed that helmet with the little horns from on top of her head.

Sentence 3. Cedric sneezed, I pulled out a handkerchief.

Answers: Sentence 1 is complete. Sentence 2 is not really a sentence; it’s a fragment with no complete idea. Sentence e is a comma splice because it contains two complete thoughts joined only by a comma.

Can you combine these sentences in a grammatically correct way?

Sentence 1: George slipped the microfilm into the heel of his shoe.

Sentence 2: The shoe had been shined just yesterday by the superspy.

Sentence 3: The superspy pretends to work at a shoeshine stand.

Sentence 4: The superspy’s name is unknown.

Sentence 5: The superspy’s code number is -4.

Sentence 6: George is terrified of the superspy.

Dozens of combinations are possible. Here are two:

George slipped the microfilm into the heel of his shoe, which had been shined just yesterday by the superspy. The superspy, whose name is unknown but whose code number is -4, pretends to work at a shoeshine stand and terrifies George.


After the shoe had been shined by the superspy, who pretends to work at a shoeshine stand, George slipped the microfilm into the heel. George is terrified by the superspy, whose name is unknown and whose code number is -4.