Sentence Fragments: How to Use Them

Pedants point smugly and sneer, ‘That’s not a sentence.’ Microsoft Word screams when we use them. But many writers write in fragments and to great effect.

Good fragments aren’t made by chopping off any old sentence randomly. Fragments are short and emphatic, and suit moments that hold the dramatic and vital.

Here are some ways to use fragments effectively:

* Fragments can establish aspects of setting quickly.

Sunday. Mid-morning. Early summer.”
(Peter Goldsworthy, Three Dog Night)

* Fragments reveal character quickly.

“They think I’m dignified. Wealthy. A little mysterious.”
(Cate Kennedy, Flotsam)

* Fragments can contain and give emphasis to critical or pivotal moments.

“Sex with her had brought him to the edge of the yellow line on the platform of tube and train stations where he stood thinking about it. Paddington. South Kensington. Waterloo. Once in the Metro in Paris. Twice in Berlin. Death had been on his mind for a long time.”
(Deborah Levy, Swimming Home)

* Fragments can heighten traumatic moments.

This excerpt holds the moments between the main character’s last sighting of her lover and news of the tragic accident.

“I had to lift the headphones away from her ears to ask again, and I remember the glossy slip of her hair between my fingers, her nod, her tucking money into her jeans and going out on that foolish chore. Black sesame seeds, as if the world would stop if I didn’t have them. And the sun in the kitchen, listening to PBS, and the time lengthening and lengthening. Sharpening into fear. And the phone ringing.”
(Cate Kennedy, What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved)

* Fragments can be used to build sensory details.

“And here is her father’s razor, one of his seven cut-throats, one for every day of the week they need to rest to keep their temper. Silver flash of steel. Hair-splitting sharp. Honed with rhythmical sinister swish on the leather strop on the back of the bathroom door.”
(Marion Halligan, Spidercup)

Another example.

“Madeleine Sheridan’s eyes were burning like coal. Blue coal.”
(Deborah Levy, Swimming Home)

The best way to learn the effects of sentence fragments is through studying the way other writers use them. Just remember fragments are usually short, and they should hold a critical vivid moment.

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10 Responses to Sentence Fragments: How to Use Them

  1. I use these! All. The. Time. I just didn’t know what to call them before this post. Thanks for putting this together and highlighting the different ways they can be used. I recently read local author Graham Cooper’s book ‘Vinegar’, which is written completely in fragments… now that’s breaking the rules! Worth a read.

  2. margaret jackson says:

    Yes Karen I tend to use them a fair bit too. But the descriptions above about the various ways and why to use them is really helpful. i am much more aware of using them after reading this. thank you

  3. dianathrelfo says:

    Thank you Karen. It’s really helpful to know when it’s most effective to use fragments. I’ve utilised them briefly, and consciously, in the latest piece I’ve written, so hope it turns out to be effective.

  4. Lydia Devadason says:

    This is a really helpful post. I will definitely have a think about the way I use them. Thanks

  5. Oh, so that’s what they’re called! Thanks for this, Karen; it’s good to know I’m not breaking some set-in-stone Law of Writing. I guess I work on the basis that if the flow feels right when I read it back, then it’s right for the piece. (Well…. I hope!)

    • Hi Joanna. Lovely to hear from you. I’m not sure if ‘fragments’ are known by other names, but that’s what I call them. Love your term ‘set-in-stone Law of Writing.’ I’ve seen too many writers break all the rules with brilliant success that I’m not sure I believe in Laws of Writing. They’re great as a means of learning about writing but then you have to be free to do what you do – if it feels right, then it’s right for the piece. Thanks for your great comment.

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