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. All grammatical concerns aside, the result is just plain bad.

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.

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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,” About.com, http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/In-Defense-Of-Fragments-Crots-And-Verbless-Sentences.htm.

2. Thomas Wolfe, “The Face of the War,” in From Death to Morning (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935).

 

 

God’s Dress Code

For whatever weird reason, while in the shower a few minutes ago, I found myself reminiscing on an early passage of my journey with Jesus when I attended a classic “holy roller”-style Pentecostal church. The cliches were true: many of the men really did slick back their hair, and the women really did wear their hair in buns and wore long dresses and no makeup. They were not an outwardly attractive group, and I realize in retrospect that a lot of them were just as severe on the inside—and at the time, so was I. Which gets me to thinking about this whole business of appearance.

In 1 Samuel 16:6–7, we get the following insight into how God views things: “[Samuel] looked at Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’” (NASB).

It’s the heart that God pays attention to. Outer stuff is just that: outer, superficial. What God values is inside us. He’s after the candy bar, not the wrapper. He feels that way about every aspect of our lives, and he wants us to have the same perspective, as Jesus makes clear in one of his statements to the religious critics of his day: “‘Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment’” (John 7:24 NASB). Eugene Peterson renders this verse beautifully in The Message: “‘Don’t be nitpickers; use your head—and heart!—to discern what is right, to test what is authentically right.’”

Righteous judgment is judgment that’s informed by the heart and, to a large extent, by—dare I say it?—common sense. Moreover, holiness is about an inner condition that may or may not at all be reflected by how a person dresses. It’s tied not to external rules of deportment but to the law of love—love for God and love for one’s neighbor. Love guides in ways that rules can’t and furnishes nobler reasons than merely “getting it right.” Moreover, it does so in freedom, not bondage.

With this in mind, let’s consider what the apostle Peter was getting at when he advised women, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3–4 NIV).

What was Peter really saying?

The people in that church I attended apparently thought he had issued some kind of anti-fashion dress code. But by zeroing in on the first half of the passage, they completely missed its purpose, namely, to create a backdrop for what follows. Too bad, because that second half is the true heart of the matter—and the part that’s far harder for us to deal with. It’s a whole lot easier to do something about the way we look than the way we are.

Many Christians have interpreted Peter’s words in a way that confuses holiness with homeliness. But that wasn’t Peter’s point; his point was to shift his readers’ focus from the outside to the place where true beauty lies: in one’s “inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” Peter could just as easily have told women, “Don’t preoccupy yourselves with looking as plain as possible, avoiding attractive hairstyles, jewelry, and fine clothes. Those things aren’t the issue. Concentrate on what’s within.”

Ditto for men. Greasing back one’s hair and wearing a suit doesn’t make a guy any more pleasing in God’s sight than wearing jeans and a T-shirt. What counts is the heart. And no, I don’t buy the idea that if our heart belongs to God, we’ll dress in a certain prescribed way “out of respect for the Lord.” The Bible tells us what God cares about, and it has nothing to do with whether we dress up or down. It doesn’t matter whether a woman dresses in a potato sack or a sequined gown if her mouth spews out poison in her relationships. It doesn’t matter whether a man wears a suit or cargo pants if he’s mean as a rattlesnake at home and a crook at work.

Now, please understand: I do believe that love will guide us to dress in a way that doesn’t tempt our brothers and sisters sexually. But that issue, while related to this one, is a separate discussion. You’re smart; you can figure it out, right? It’s about love, about seeking the best interests of others, not about rules.

It always is. When love reigns, so do color and creativity and freedom, tempered by healthy self-control, and in all of it, life the way God means us to live it.

Choosing the Right Word: Close Isn’t Good Enough

In his hilarious and withering lampoon of nineteenth-century novelist J. Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain famously observed that good writing requires the writer to “use the right word, not its second cousin.”¹

Twain was a master at using the right word, with effects that ranged from the poignant to the stirring to the biting and, quite often, to the side-splitting. Here he is again in chapter 27 of Roughing It, describing with fond humor an associate from his silver mining days whose standard of usage was a bit different from Twain’s:

Mr. Ballou, through whose iron-clad earnestness no sarcasm could pierce, said that … the provisions were exposed and would suffer, the horses being “bituminous from long deprivation.”

The reader will excuse me from translating. What Mr. Ballou customarily meant, when he used a long word, was a secret between himself and his Maker…. His one striking peculiarity was his Partingtonian fashion of loving and using big words for their own sakes, and independent of any bearing they might have upon the thought he was purposing to convey. He always let his ponderous syllables fall with an easy unconsciousness that left them wholly without offensiveness. In truth his air was so natural and so simple that one was always catching himself accepting his stately sentences as meaning something, when they really meant nothing in the world. If a word was long and grand and resonant, that was sufficient to win the old man’s love, and he would drop that word into the most out-of-the-way place in a sentence or a subject, and be as pleased with it as if it were perfectly luminous with meaning.

Twain not only elicits a smile but also makes a point that many a writer should take to heart. One of the corrections I make often as an editor is to switch out poor word choices for appropriate ones, and one of my more frequent queries is, “Correct word? Consider [I suggest alternatives].”

It’s good to choose colorful words that breathe vigor and freshness into a sentence. But they have got to actually mean what the writer wants them to mean. Not almost what he means; not merely in the neighborhood of what she intends, close enough that it might pass if the reader isn’t paying attention.² Close enough isn’t good enough. A good writer doesn’t use words casually. He or she loves them too much and cares too much about their effect to sling them about with the easy indiscriminateness of a Mr. Ballou.

Don’t you be a Ballou. Here are a few tips that can help you ensure that you’re choosing the right word for the job.

Use Your Dictionary

If there is an overarching principle of good word usage, this is it. Keep your dictionary within easy reach and use it often. If you use an online dictionary, fine. Internet dictionaries are convenient, and I consult them regularly, although—call me old-fashioned—I still often prefer my print version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, which is the current standard for popular writing.

Whatever your dictionary of choice may be, just use it, that’s all. I can’t emphasize this enough: Consulting your dictionary ought to be so regular and natural a part of your writing habit that it’s instinctive. When in doubt about a word, look it up. I’ve done so several times so far in writing this post and will do so many more times before it’s finished.

Don’t Use One Word for Another Just Because Your Thesaurus Lists It as a Synonym

A good thesaurus ought to sit right next to your desktop dictionary as a standard writing tool. It’s a treasure trove of possibilities for finding just the right word to create the effect you’re after. Look at all those cool words your thesaurus contains—words you never dreamed of, lustrous pearls of nuance and mood, all yours to choose from! But before you string one of them onto that sentence you’re composing, do one thing: look it up first. Because its meaning might be other than what you thought and different from what you want to say.

Your thesaurus isn’t a dictionary. It’s designed to broaden your options for word choices, thus expanding your creativity and impact as a writer. But to use it successfully requires using it judiciously, with the understanding that the synonyms it suggests for a given entry all have their specific meanings, and a particular word may not fit the application you have in mind. So once you’ve found a word you like in your thesaurus, unless that word is one whose meaning you’re certain of, look it up. Otherwise, your readers may be less impressed by it than you are.

Don’t Trust “Understanding through Context”

How often have you inferred the meaning of an unfamiliar word through the way it was used? You didn’t need to grab the dictionary; the word’s context defined it for you.

Or so you thought.

You can in fact often determine a word’s meaning from its context. But you’d be surprised how often you guess wrong. You may hit the bullseye, but you may just as easily merely clip the blue ring or even miss the target entirely. How do I know? Because my own profession as a writer has shown me what a rotten shot I can be when it comes to using words whose definitions I’ve extrapolated rather than looked up. So I’ve learned to listen to that inner voice when it asks, Do I really know what this word means? As soon as that question pops up, it’s dictionary time. Only after I’ve ascertained the word’s meaning do I use that word—or refrain from using it and find a more appropriate choice. I’m nit-picky that way, incorrigibly so, and if you’re a writer, you should be too.

Deducing a word’s meaning from its context is fine when you’re reading casually and feeling lazy, but it’s not acceptable when you’re writing. If you care enough about your subject to write about it, you should care enough to write about it well, and that means, among other things, knowing exactly what it is you’re saying. Words are the currency of communication; be able to account for every dime you spend.

In Conclusion

Word usage is an area where you can’t afford to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Don’t just think that you know what a word means; make certain you do before you use it. Frequently consulting your dictionary is the mark of a thirsty mind and an exacting and responsible writer.

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1. Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” 1895. Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans and other books in the Leatherstocking pioneer fiction series.

2. I’m well aware that I’ve used a sentence fragment. I’m quite comfortable with that. See my article on sentence fragments.