How To Identify And Fix Sentence Fragments (And When You Can Use Them!)

Was leaking profusely.

What was leaking profusely? The kitchen sink? The hot air balloon? The baby’s diaper? The informants secretly embedded in the organization

Are you perplexed—or maybe even a little bit curious—about the rest of the story and the missing words? (OK, maybe not in the case of the diaper.)

This is often what happens when a reader comes across a sentence fragment like our example above. Readers are left confused—or worse yet, annoyed because they can’t decipher the fragment’s meaning.

As you can see, sentence fragments are chunks of sentences that can’t stand alone. Their use can make writing seem choppy and disorganized, and they can easily sneak into our writing without us even noticing.

Here’s where Thesaurus.com comes in! We will teach you about different types of sentence fragments and how to transform them into functioning, complete sentences. We will also teach when you may actually want to use them to make your writing shine. Yep, there’s a time and place for everything. Even sentence fragments.

What is a sentence fragment?

A sentence fragment is a phrase or clause written as a sentence but lacking an element, as a subject or verb, that would enable it to function as an independent sentence in normative written English.

Let’s break that down a bit. In English, a complete sentence has a main clause with a subject and verb. (A main clause is also known as an independent clause.) But a sentence fragment is a missing one of these elements: it doesn’t have a subject or a verb, or it is a clause that doesn’t express a complete thought on its own.

The example in our introduction is missing a subject: was leaking profusely. Who or what is leaking? The lack of a subject, here, is what makes this phrase a sentence fragment.

Here’s one way to fix our sentence fragment, with the correction indicated in red. (Other corrections are likewise noted in red throughout the rest of the article.)

 

  • The jug of milk was leaking profusely.

Grammar and writing involve a lot of specialized vocabulary. For more information, click the links throughout this article for Dictionary.com definitions and expert articles, including this one on writing rules that you can actually break (sometimes).

Types of sentence fragments

There are three main types of sentence fragments: sentences missing a subject, sentences missing a verb, and subordinate clause fragments. Let’s examine them more closely so you’ll know how to spot them.

1. Missing a subject

A sentence fragment may have a verb but may be missing a subject.

Examples of sentence fragments missing a subject:

 

  • is taking the bus
  • walked slowly toward the big red button
  • dances under the light of the moon

2. Missing a verb

A sentence fragment may have a subject but may be missing a verb.

Examples of sentence fragments missing a verb:

 

  • spooky, scary skeletons
  • the mad scientist
  • three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree

3. Subordinate clause fragments

A subordinate clause modifies a main clause (or some part of it) and always begins with a subordinating conjunction. In the sentence The dogs ran into the field when the farmer opened the gate, the subordinate clause is when the farmer opened the gate. Subordinating conjunctions are followed by a comma when they precede the clause they modify: When the farmer opened the gate, the dogs ran into the field. 

A subordinate clause has both a subject and a verb, but it cannot be used by itself as a sentence. Because it doesn’t express a complete thought, a subordinate clause is a sentence fragment when used alone.

If you need help spotting subordinate clauses, remember some of the more common subordinating conjunctions include because, since, as, if, before, after, once, until, than, and that.

Examples of subordinate clause fragments:

 

  • Because I was the only one who could
  • Until the whole world knows her name
  • As they learned the true meaning of Christmas

How to fix sentence fragments—and when

There may be times when you want to use a sentence fragment (we’ll get to that in a bit), but for the most part, you will want to get rid of them. These three examples show how easy it is for sentence fragments to sneak into your writing.

 

  • I have two best friends. Ron and Harry.
  • There are three cheeses on the platter. Swiss, Gouda, and Brie.
  • When is the store open? Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

In order to fix sentence fragments, we need to turn them into complete sentences. To do this, we first need to figure out what is missing.

1. Add a subject:

❌ Fragment: is taking the bus
✅ Corrected: My evil twin is taking the bus.

❌ Fragment: walked slowly toward the big red button
✅ Corrected: Dexter’s sister walked slowly toward the big red button.

❌ Fragment: dances under the light of the moon
✅ Corrected: The werewolf pop star dances under the light of the moon

Grammar note: remember that imperative verbs have an implied subject. The subject is an understood you (or whoever the speaker is addressing).

For example, this imperative sentence is not a sentence fragment: Hand me the monkey wrench. In this sentence the subject is implied: (Jessie), hand me the monkey wrench.  

2. Add a verb:

❌ Fragment: spooky, scary skeletons
✅ Corrected: Spooky, scary skeletons sing silly songs. 

❌ Fragment: the mad scientist
✅ Corrected: The mad scientist built a cool car that can be used as a time machine.

❌ Fragment: three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree
✅ Corrected: Three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree make good gifts.

3. Connect a fragment with another sentence 

❌ Fragment: I have two best friends. Ron and Harry.
✅ Corrected: I have two best friends, and their names are Ron and Harry.

❌ Fragment: There are three cheeses on the platter. Swiss, Gouda, and Brie.
✅ Corrected: There are three cheeses on the platter: Swiss, Gouda, and Brie.

❌ Fragment: When is the store open? Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
✅ Corrected: When is the store open? I think it is open on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

How to avoid using sentence fragments

In general, you want to avoid using sentence fragments in formal writing. Even in creative writing or journalism, you should have a good reason for using a sentence fragment. Even if a reader still gets your meaning, the reader may think you made a mistake and think less of your writing. The last thing you want is a reader to think your intentional use of a sentence fragment was a bad grammar mistake!

Is it ever OK to use sentence fragments?

We seldom speak in complete sentences when talking with friends, family, or even people we pass in the street. In informal settings, it is perfectly fine—and utterly normal and expected—to talk, text, tweet, and so on in incomplete sentences.

There are even times when sentence fragments can actually improve your writing. For the exact reason that they are seldom used, sentence fragments can call attention and bring emphasis. When a reader encounters such fragments, they may stop and focus more on the fragment and what it’s trying to say. Writers often take advantage of this to make their words more persuasive, exciting, or memorable. A sentence fragment can be especially effective when used in an introduction to a piece of writing.

Examples of effective sentence fragments

Some of our greatest writers have made great use of sentence fragments. Here are two famous examples from literature.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
—O’Henry, The Gift of the Magi (1905)

Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a-year. What a fine thing for our girls!
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

You may not be O’Henry or Jane Austen, but that doesn’t mean you, too, can’t use a sentence fragment to punch up your writing. Below are additional instances of some effective sentence fragments. Do you think the examples  would have the same impact if they were written in complete sentences?

 

  • You probably never think about the disappearing rainforests. But you should.
  • One man. One woman. Their chimp sidekick. Will they make it to the spaceship in time? Tune in next week to find out!
  • Stella led a normal life in the rainy town of Spoons, Oregon. Until she was bitten by a vampire.
  • All I want is a friend. A special friend. A friend who likes the real me. I’ll never find that friend.
  • Heard Jack lost his dog. Poor guy. Hope he finds her.
  • They need help from someone. Someone who isn’t me.

More examples of correcting sentence fragments

 

  • Zesty peppers Correction: Zesty peppers taste great.
  • Ran around in circles Correction: The lost knights ran around in circles.
  • While we have the chance Correction: We should take the magic ring while we have the chance
  • We can try splitting up. Never fails. Correction: We can try splitting up because that never fails.
  • Buy me some cabbages. Three or four. Correction: Buy me some cabbages; three or four will do. 
  • We need to get out of here. Before the bear wakes up. Correction: We need to get out of here before the bear wakes up.
  • Tuna salad. It is what’s for dinner. Correction: Tuna salad is what’s for dinner.

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Sometimes it's effective to use fragments in your writing. It's also useful to ignore these 5 grammar rules once in a while.