Recognizing and avoiding sentence fragments

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A sentence fragment is, essentially, an incomplete sentence. It generally consists of a dependent clause that needs to be joined to an independent clause to create a complete thought. Because it is an incomplete sentence, readers will have trouble making meaning from your words.

Helpful tip: dependent clause fragments are the most common kind of fragment, but there are others, including missing piece fragments (where the subject or verb is missing)

Sample fragment explained

The following sentence is a complete sentence (independent clause). It contains a subject and predicate:

I stayed up late last night.

The following sentence is also a complete sentence (independent clause). It contains a subject and predicate:

I drank an excessive amount of coffee today.

The following sentence is a dependent clause fragment. Without the dependent clause cue word because, the sentence is independent. With the addition of the word because, it is a fragment: without an independent clause attached, the thought is incomplete, and the reader will not know what occurred because of your late night:

Because I stayed up late last night.

Helpful tip: dependent clause cues and signals are also know as subordinating conjunctions.

Both of the following sentences are effective solutions to the sentence fragment:

Because I stayed up late last night, I drank an excessive amount of coffee today.

I drank an excessive amount of coffee today because I stayed up late last night.

Grammatical tip: when joining dependent and independent clauses, comma usage changes depending on clause order (as in the above examples). Use a comma when the dependent clause comes first; omit a comma when the independent clause comes first.

Avoiding sentence fragments

1. Watch for dependent clause cue words (ie. subordinating clauses).

Dependent clause cue words are words that turn independent clauses ("her notes were carefully crafted") into dependent ones ("though her notes were carefully crafted..."). If the dependent clause is joined to an independent one, it forms a grammatically complete sentence; if not, it is a sentence fragment.

Some common dependent clause cue words include the following: because, although, even if, when, whenever, despite, unless, after

2. Proofread carefully by reading aloud and paying attention to periods and semicolons.

Remember that proofreading and revision are not the same activities. Proofreading involves reading for lower-level issues (sentence structure, punctuation, verb tense, etc.), while revision involves reading for higher-level issues (argument, logic, evidence, analysis, etc.). Both are important components of the writing process.

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