Ask the Editor: Is it okay to use sentence fragments in my writing? How much is too much?
This is a column by Kira McFadden
[jbox]Jeffrey Littorno asks: I have been a high school English teacher for most of the last twenty-five years, so I know that sentence fragments are to be avoided at all costs. However, I have gotten into the habit of using them regularly in my writing to convey the seed of a thought or impression. What is your opinion on breaking the rules of grammar by utilizing fragments?[/jbox]
Kira answers: A sentence fragment is a phrase or clause punctuated and capitalized like a sentence, but does not constitute a complete grammatical sentence. Many authors use them in their writing, and sometimes they can be very helpful. Like Mr. Littorno said, they are useful for planting the seeds of thoughts and giving a character voice.
At the same token, beware of overusing them. A seed of a thought or a plot point can be planted without using fragments, and often the work is stronger for it. Sentence fragments, when used in succession, also have a nasty habit of feeling repetitive or clunky—like something’s missing—and readers may have a hard time following the action.
Read the following two examples, and note how abrasive the first is compared to the latter.
The magic pole. That was what he needed. But how to get it? First the rope. Then maybe the stake. Those should help. Mark nabbed the yards of hemp and tied a noose on one end. Perfect. After lacing the noose around the stake and attaching the stake to a spear, he flung it into the wall. Clank. Miss. Clank, clank. Miss, miss. Clunk. There. All done.
There are nine fragments in the above paragraph. Though this is an exaggeration, I have read manuscripts with this sort of style. It’s distracting and the rhythm is too abrupt, making it difficult to get into the flow of the action.
On the ledge high above resided the magic pole. Mark needed it, and fast. A length of rope tied to a heavy iron stake offered some of the support he required to climb the steep wall, but he wasn’t strong enough to toss the rusty iron peg himself. It wouldn’t go pierce the rock if he did, so he wound it to the head of a spear.
Clank. The first shot bounced off the side of the canyon and dropped to the dirt. Mark reeled it in and tired again. Clank. Dang, still a miss. On the third try, clunk, the spear and stake dug into the stone.
In the second example, more of the scenery is revealed and the use of one major fragment, “Dang, still a miss,” gives a sense of voice. His strength and the limit of his abilities are also revealed. These could all be expressed in sentence fragments, but in the second example, the sentences are a little more complex and the scene reads more smoothly.
Much like similes and metaphors, sentence fragments should be used sparsely. If a character speaks and thinks in sentence fragments, then be sure to show the world you’re creating in complete sentences in your prose, and add the fragments in italicized thought, dialogue, or pepper it throughout the manuscript.
Some people in the literary community despise sentence fragments—if you’re thinking of approaching an agent, make sure your work has as few fragments as possible, and none in the first twenty pages of your novel. Why? Some agents may drop your manuscript into the trash bin at the first sign of too many sentence fragments, and for a select few agents out there, one is too many.
Also keep in mind that if you are a first-time author, you have not earned the salability that allows you to break the rules, so try not to. I’m not saying stay away from them like the plague, just reminding you to be aware of how many you use. If you can cut some and strengthen your work, by all means, do so. Conversely, if one here or there gives your novel the oomph it needs, keep them!
Kira McFadden is an avid enthusiast for all things publishing and writing. She has worked for two publishing firms and has helped local authors compile information for their works. You can visit her at http://inrugia.zxq.net.