Sentence Fragments

If a word group lacks a subject, a verb, or both, or if a word group begins with a subordinating word, then it is a sentence fragment. For a group of words to be a sentence, it must be independent: it must stand alone and make sense.

Sentence fragments are easy to recognize when they are standing alone because they do not make sense:

  • Incorrect: Hoping that his sister was all right. (What does this phrase mean? Who was hoping that his sister was all right?)
  • Correct: Hoping that his sister was all right, Mark went straight to the hospital.

Incomplete sentences may be harder to notice when they follow an independent clause because the complete idea is there, but it is cut in two by a period:

  • Incorrect: We went to the library. After we ate dinner.
  • Correct: We went to the library after we ate dinner.

To check for a sentence fragment, look at each sentence individually and not at the paragraph as a whole. Read each sentence out loud, by itself. If a sentence is incomplete, then it will sound awkward standing alone.

A writer can test for sentence completeness by asking three questions:

1) Is there a subject?

Think of a sentence as a one-line play, or story about a main character. The subject is the central character of the play or story. This character may be a person, place, thing, or idea. The subject is either doing something or being described in some way. In the following sentence, "The boy jumped over the fence," the main actor or subject is "boy."

An abstract idea can be the subject of a sentence as well. Think of a play in which the main actor is an idea rather than a person: "Truth is the goal of this philosophy." The concept "truth" is still center stage in the sentence, as its main actor.

2) Is there a verb?

The verb shows the action or condition of the main character or subject in the sentence. In the above sentence, the verb "jumped" shows the action taken by the subject. In this sentence, "The boy felt sad," the verb "felt" shows the emotional condition of the subject. In "Truth is the goal of this philosophy," the verb "is" expresses the state or condition of the subject, truth. (Truth is the goal here).

3) Can the word group stand alone as an independent clause?

If all three questions are answered "yes," then the word group is a complete sentence.

How to Fix Sentence Fragments

1) Connect the fragmented phrase to a nearby sentence.

  • Incorrect: Hoping that his sister was all right. Mark went to the emergency room.
  • Correct: Hoping that his sister was all right, Mark went to the emergency room.

Sometimes subordinate clauses are written alone, making them fragments. A subordinate clause has both a subject and a verb, but begins with a word or word phrase such as if, after, so that, unless, until, etc., which makes the sentence unable to stand alone. Subordinate clause fragments can be corrected by connecting the fragment to a nearby sentence:

  • Incorrect: Jon went to the store to buy bread. After he dropped Mary off at school.

The second sentence is a fragment because it fails the third question in the sentence completeness test: "Can the word group stand alone as an independent clause?" Connect the fragment to the first sentence:

  • Correct: Jon went to the store to buy bread after he dropped Mary off at school.
  • Correct: After he dropped Mary off at school, Jon went to the store to buy bread.

Another way to solve this problem is to remove the word which makes the sentence a subordinate clause:

  • Jon went to the store to buy bread. He dropped Mary off at school.

2) Make the fragment complete by adding the necessary subject and revising as needed:

  • Mark went to the emergency room. He hoped that his sister was all right.

3) Make the fragment complete by adding the necessary verb and revising as needed:

  • Incorrect: I spent hours researching the paper. A difficult topic.
  • Correct: I spent hours researching the paper. The topic was difficult.

For more correction methods, see Sentence Fragments: Practice

Created by Dana Jones and Dr. Elza Tiner