Quick Tip Tuesday: Sentence Fragments

April 27th, 2010

In this week’s Quick Tip, Jeff Anderson takes us “behind the error” to show us how to help students learn the difference between a simple sentence and a sentence fragment. Jeff is the author of Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop.

In Plain English:  A sentence must contain at least one subject and one verb, and it must form a complete thought. A fragment is missing a subject or verb, and/or it doesn’t contain a complete
thought.

“Writers should master the complete-sentence technique before getting fragment-happy.”
–Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style

A fragment is not a sentence. It may have a capital letter. It may even have a period, but it’s missing an important element, such as a subject or a verb. Fragments may add rhythm, emphasis, and variety to writing — when they’re intentional — and sometimes even when they’re not. However, students need the ability to fix sentence fragments. They must be able to identify them and avoid writing them in high-stakes situations such as testing. Sentence fragments may also make writing appear sloppy and incorrect. Students need to distinguish between the effective use of fragments, which is purposeful and rare, and the ineffective use, which looks careless and choppy.

To identify and correct fragments, writers must understand the simple sentence. They don’t need to mark all the parts of speech or make a diagram. Students do need to know that a group of words starting with a capital letter and ending with a period is not necessarily a complete sentence. When I ask students what makes a sentence a sentence, they respond: “Letters,” “A capital at the beginning,” and “Periods.” But what do they really know about the sentence?

Do they know that a minimal simple sentence must have a subject and a verb? “Sean laughs.” That’s a simple sentence. We could add a few prepositional phrases such as phrases add detail, they are not needed to form a simple sentence. Everything students learn about sentences, from compound to complex, rides on this essential understanding: Simple sentences are made up of a subject and verb. Sean laughs.

Who or what laughs? Sean, the subject. What does he do? Laughs, the verb.

The ability to pare a sentence down to its essential core is the first tool students need in order to uncover the craft of all sentences.

Student Error: “When I was five. I had a Chuckie doll. I would scare everybody with Chuckie. Chuckie was about two feet, had orange hair, little red and white shoes, overalls, and plastic knife. I replaced the plastic knife with a real knife. To make Chuckie look more like the real thing. From the kitchen Drawer. Like a mini-butcher knife. I super glued it into Chuckie’s hand. Ready for business.”

Behind the Error: This is a typical student attempt at adding sophistication to sentences. Randy doesn’t want to use only simple sentences. He wants to add some life and complexity to his sentences, but in taking this risk, he creates fragments with his punctuation. Have you ever wondered why kids in fourth grade start writing fragments? Their skills aren’t keeping up with their growing intellect and their ability to express ever-more-complex thoughts. Randy writes: “When I was five. I had a Chuckie doll.” We should celebrate that he’s stumbled on the complex sentence. His thinking needs this more sophisticated sentence form. On the surface, we see a fragment, and if we were bean counting, we might see that he’s writing more fragments now than he did a year ago, but a lot of these fragments are fragments because Randy is punctuating the dependent clause with a period instead of a comma. When students hit this stage, they are ready for more tools to express themselves.

Mentor Text
They race. (p. 5)
—Jerry Spinelli, Loser
Matt winces. (p. 364)
Maria flinched. (p. 366)
Matt froze. (p. 370)
Matt nodded. (p. 372)
—Nancy Farmer, House of the Scorpion
Tad watched. (p. 6)
Blood flew. (p. 111)
He sprung. (p. 128)
—Stephen King, Cujo

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Christy Casher  |  April 27th, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Great tip! Anderson’s book is a must-read for grammar instruction.

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