Daily Archives: January 26, 2010

Prose Test Kitchen: Fragments

Prose Test Kitchen: a giant metaphorical kitchen in which we experiment with all sorts of ingredients that can help make our prose taste better, like alliteration and exciting verbs. Um… okay, you get the extended metaphor; anyway today’s ingredient-of-consideration is…

The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, defines a fragment as:

  1. A small part broken off or detatched
  2. An incomplete or isolated portion; a bit

A literary fragment is basically the same thing, only…literary:

  1. A dependent phrase or clause broken off or detached from the main clause
  2. An incomplete or isolated sentence

When used correctly, literary fragments can add style and flair to your prose. I mean, who wants to read complete sentence after complete sentence after complete sentence? Gets kind of boring. But too many fragments can make your reader’s eyes go buggy. So how to make these things shine? Here are a few guidelines.

Fragments can:

  • Vary the rhythm of your prose. This goes back to the complete sentence after complete sentence thing. A paragraph constructed of sentences that are 30 words long sounds dull. Repetitive. But a paragraph with a one-word sentence, then a 50-word sentence, then a fragment? That’s interesting. But the real point of varying rhythm with fragments is to…
  • Add emphasis. If you’re reading along, lulled by strings of lyrical, complete sentences, and then your eyes land on a fragment, you’re going to sit up. Take notice. Use fragments to call your readers’ attention to important plot points, character revelations, etc.
  • Speed up your action-packed scenes. If your character is running from the bad guys, out of breath and frightened, she’s not going to rely on complete sentences. She’s going to see things in fragments. And when she describes her predicament with short, spiky sentences, your reader’s going to feel frightened and tense and out of breath, too.

These rocks are fragments, too.

So we’ve established that fragments can be useful and stylish. However, the college student in me wants to add a caveat. The OWL at Purdue explains:

You may have noticed that newspaper and magazine journalists often use a dependent clause as a separate sentence when it follows clearly from the preceding main clause […]. This is a conventional journalistic practice, often used for emphasis. For academic writing and other more formal writing situations, however, you should avoid such journalistic fragment sentences.

Take this warning seriously. When I ignore it every now and then, the effects can be rollercoaster-y. Some professors don’t mind at all, but others put big red circles around these sentences and helpfully mark them: FRAGMENT. And I think, I know, you silly, that was the point. It was literary.

So here’s the thing. Fragments can add lots of flavor to your writing, but don’t overdo them. And don’t use them in your papers.


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