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Because I Said So! (And Other Sentence Fragments)

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The title of this blog entry packs a fair amount of information: We can tell that somebody has challenged the speaker/writer’s authority; we can tell that the speaker/writer is annoyed; we can even tell that the speaker is responding directly to a challenging question.  But we have no idea what the question was or even what the argument is about, because this is a fragment of a longer sentence, such as:

You have to make your bed every morning because I said so!

Now we understand.

Basically there are two ways in which a sentence can be fragmentary. 

  1. In the first case, the fragment is a dependent clause.  It has a subject and a predicate, but it cannot stand on its own as a sentence—it is dependent for its meaning on an independent clause, one which (usually) precedes it.  In our example above, the dependent clause is “because I said so” and the independent clause is “You have to make your bed every morning.” 

A clause is made dependent when it begins with a specific type of word: the subordinate conjunction.  Subordinate conjunctions include:

Because
Although
While
When
If
Where
Whenever
Unless, etc. (there are many more subordinate conjunctions and subordinate conjunction phrases)

--and their function is to introduce a clause which modifies the independent clause in some way.  Note that you can make a dependent clause into an independent one simply by removing the subordinate conjunction:

I said so!

--but more often we attach the clause to the independent clause it modifies, creating a complex sentence.  

2.    In the second case, the fragment lacks a subject, a predicate, or both.  It isn’t even a clause. Examples:

Running in panic toward the left-field wall. 

--This describes someone, or perhaps a group of someones, but that’s all it does.   We don’t know who is running, and we don’t know why we’re being shown these panicking runners. Note: a present participle (an –ing word) is not a verb unless it is accompanied by an auxiliary verb.  Example: He was running in panic toward the left-field wall.  The verb in that complete sentence is “was running,” not “running.”

Has never worked a day in her life.

--here’s a predicate without a subject.  Who has never worked a day in her life? That’s what’s missing.

Haunted by the thought of failure, paralyzed by self-doubt, obsessively checking and rechecking every step of the process, and this despite the fact that the process itself had been her own creation, and that the company had been much worse off before she came on board.

--Whoever “she” is, she has a lot of problems!  Nevertheless, this is still a fragment.  There are clauses here (“the process itself had been her own creation” and “the company had been much worse off” and “she came on board”), but they’re all made dependent by subjunctive conjunctions (“before,” “despite the fact that”).  Note that length has nothing to do with whether a sentence is complete or a fragment.  (“I lost” is a complete sentence.) This is a long, complicated, detailed description of somebody, not a sentence.

When we talk to each other or write informally, we often use sentence fragments.  Professional writers (novelists, for example) will use them too, judiciously, either in dialogue or for stylistic purposes.  But when we’re writing academic papers, we should always write in complete sentences.  They demonstrate our grammatical and syntactic savvy. They show that we know how to communicate using complete thoughts.

So: When proofreading your own work, make sure, with respect to each sentence, that it has at least one subject and one verb and that it can stand on its own, without leaning on another sentence for its essential meaning.  Learning how to identify fragments and correct them is an essential writing skill.

Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

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