Sentence Fragments: Speaking Up for the Verbless Sentence

Reading through my recent post about word usage, I discovered—I know this will shock you—a rather lengthy sentence fragment. Gracious! Did I write such a thing? Me? Yes indeed. Right there, shamelessly and in broad daylight, I committed a fragment. I wrote it that way because I liked it that way. The fragment in question followed easily from the preceding sentence, and I liked its effect. So I fragged. If I had it to do all over, I would frag again. Not only so, but I will frag in the future with a conscience unclouded by the strictures of grammar. And to those pedants who take a dim view of my fragging, I have this to say: Phooey. Masters of the Fragment Sentence fragments have their uses. Note that word uses. Unquestionably, fragments (also known as crots or verbless sentences) often get misused.¹ When they arise inadvertently, as happens with inexpert writers, the results can be bewildering or just plain awkward. Yet many seasoned writers have incorporated sentence fragments as part of their voice. Dickens did. Hemingway did, and so did Thomas Wolfe, and so does Maya Angelou, all with brilliant effect. Take, for example, this excerpt from Wolfe's short story "The Face of the War":
Again, the speed, haste, violence, savage humor and the instant decisiveness of war:—A sweltering noon on one of the great munition piers at Newport News where now the boy is working as material checker. Inside the great shed of the pier, a silent, suffocating heat of one hundred ten degrees, a grimy, mote-filled air, pollenated with the golden dust of oats which feed through a gigantic chute into the pier in an unending river, and which are sacked and piled in tremendous barricades all up and down the length of that enormous shed. Elsewhere upon the pier, the towering geometries of war munitions: the white hard cleanliness of crated woods containing food and shot provender of every sort—canned goods, meat, beans, dried fruits, and small arms ammunitions—the enormous victualling of life and death fed ceaselessly into the insatiate and receiving maw of distant war.²
You see a primary verb in any of that? There isn't one. Wolfe was going for effect, not convention, and effect is what he got, blunt, sensory, powerful, even brutal. Crot Rot and How to Avoid It Effect is the whole point of using sentence fragments. But not all effects are the same, and not all are desirable. Fragments can, for instance, imbue a few crisp words with extra significance, and that is a fine thing when applied conservatively, but it is off-putting when overdone or used to impart drama when drama isn't called for.

Josh and Ashley contemplated the candy selection. Butterfinger bars. Baby Ruths. Atomic Fireballs. Red licorice sticks. And more. Lots more. All so tasty. So toothsome. So exquisitely yummy—and yummy was good.

Very good.

Shall I continue? You'd prefer not, wouldn't you. The staccato of so many fragments piled one on top of another rapidly grows annoying, particularly since the context doesn't warrant such an approach. That last, isolated fragment in particular smacks of overblown significance. I mean, we are describing a candy display here, not a crime scene strewn with clues. All grammatical concerns aside, the result is just plain awful. There's a word I use a lot in my posts on writing: judicious. It means that in every aspect of writing—from word choices, to matters of style, to keeping or breaking rules of grammar, and more—a writer should be keenly aware of and intentional about what he or she writes. Judiciousness is often the fulcrum between masterful writing, as in the Thomas Wolfe excerpt above, and mere slovenliness. This is certainly true of sentence fragments, or crots, or verbless sentences, or whatever you wish to call them. Great writers through the centuries have used them deliberately to achieve a calculated impact, while poor writers have committed them unthinkingly, oblivious to the conventions of grammar and the guidance of good taste. Provided that the style of writing we're doing allows for fragments, there is no reason why you and I shouldn't use them. Complete sentences are the default; that's just common sense. But with that as a given, why shouldn't we—and why wouldn't we—take a lesson from the masters and apply it to our own writing? Judiciously, of course. _______________ 1. For an excellent post on the use of sentence fragments, including links to related articles, see Richard Nordquist, "In Defense of Fragments, Crots, and Verbless Sentences,", 2. Thomas Wolfe, "The Face of the War," in From Death to Morning (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935).    

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