Nothing distracts your reader as much as grammatical errors, whether they be misplaced commas, dangling modifiers, or pronoun agreement problems. Perhaps the most noticeable of these errors are sentence-structure errors—sentence fragments and run-on sentences. It is always helpful to have a proofreader, like those at Writer’s Relief, look over your creative writing before sending it out for publication. Here are some tips on how to recognize, correct, and even avoid fragments and run-on sentences.
What is a sentence fragment? A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence. We know that a sentence must have at least one subject, at least one verb, and express a complete thought. Although a fragment is punctuated as a sentence, it is often missing a subject, a verb, or both. Another way of looking at it is that a fragment cannot “stand on its own” and make sense. Consider the following:
Example 1: Peter has always loved to write. He loves to travel too. Which is why he decided to become a travel writer.
Notice that the first two word groups are, in fact, sentences. Each contains a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought. The third word group, however, is not a sentence. It cannot “stand on its own” and make sense; it is dependent upon the previous sentence for its meaning.
One surefire way to find fragments is to read your work from the last sentence to the first. Because fragments do not make sense out of context, they are easier to find if you read your work this way.
Fragments can be corrected in a couple of different ways:
1. Add the missing subject, verb, or subject and verb.
Example 2: Joe was late. Missed his plane. Here, the italicized word group is a fragment that is missing a subject. To correct it, add an appropriate subject: Joe was late. He missed his plane.
2. Join the fragment to either the previous or next sentence (whichever one makes the most sense), using the correct punctuation. This is the best way to correct Example 1: He loves to travel too, which is why he decided to become a travel writer.
There are two types of run-on sentences: comma splices and fused sentences.
Definition: A comma splice occurs when only a comma is placed between two sentences. Consider the following:
Example 3: Jane loves to cook, she also loves to go out to eat.
Here, two sentences (Jane loves to cook and She also loves to go out to eat) are joined by a comma. Remember that a comma alone can never come between two sentences.
Correcting Comma Splices
1. Leave the comma where it is and place an appropriate coordinating conjunction after it (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet).
Example 4: Jane loves to cook, and she also loves to go out to eat.
2. Replace the comma with a period, semicolon, or other appropriate punctuation.
Example 5: Jane loves to cook. She also loves to go out to eat.
Example 6: Jane loves to cook; she also loves to go out to eat. (Semicolons should be placed between sentences that are related. Notice that the “s” in she is lowercase after the semicolon.)
3. Add a subordinating conjunction to one of the clauses. Some subordinating conjunctions are after, although, as, because, before, if, inasmuch, since, unless, until, when, whenever, whereas, and while.
Example 7: Although Jane loves to cook, she also loves to go out to eat.
Definition: A fused sentence occurs when no punctuation at all is placed between two sentences. Consider the following example:
Example 8: Tom entered many writing contests he took first place in some of them.
It’s clear that this word group consists of two sentences “stuck” together without appropriate punctuation: Tom entered many writing contests and He took first place in some of them.
How To Correct Fused Sentences
1. Add the appropriate punctuation and additional words, if necessary. (Note: Be careful with commas. If you add a comma alone, you will create a comma splice.)
Example 9: Tom entered many writing contests, and he took first place in some of them.
Example 10: Tom entered many writing contests; he took first place in some of them.
The best way to locate fragment and run-on errors in your work is to read your writing out loud, slowly and carefully. Check for each type of error separately, and look closely at each punctuation mark you use. Careful proofreading will not only result in sentences free of these grammatical spoilers, but it will also ensure that your reader keeps his or her focus where it belongs—on your story and not your fragments and run-on sentences!
Writers use sentence fragments all the time. Used judiciously and sparingly, sentence fragments can add spice to a work of fiction. I agree, however, that they should be avoided at all costs in technical and non fiction work.
Very true, Kevin! Sentence fragments can definitely spice up fiction, especially action scenes (where sentences may be shorter to exemplify a tense situation) or in a self-narrative (where a character’s personality might come out in his/her inner monologues). This rings true for the occasional memoir as well, but you never want to use sentence fragments sporadically or forcefully. As a writer, part of understanding your characters and story is knowing when to employ certain tactics/techniques, and timing is everything!