Tips for Writers: Use Sentence Fragments Sparingly

6159536_origI had been reading a draft story by a young writer who had fallen into a pattern of using sentence fragments. It was a stylistic tic that drew attention to itself. On closer examination, I realized that the fragments mostly omitted the verb “to be,” the most overused verb in lazy writing. It was as if the writer had chosen to use the fragment in order to avoid “to be,” rather than rewriting the sentence with a dynamic verb. This led me to post on Facebook, in a moment of frustration, the following status update: “Fragments are cop-outs. Afraid to pick a verb? Use a fragment! Blecch.”

Most people responded with humor, some with questions. I realized that I had not specified in my update that I was talking about fiction, and I had failed to qualify my statement. So I added that, obviously, fragments had a place in good fiction, but that they’re often overused. One friend, who chose to ignore my qualifying comment, argued with me. (I’m not sure he quite understands what Facebook status updates are about, but that’s an argument for another day.)

But I’ll stand by my point. Fragments are often a sign of lazy writing. They can distract the reader, and they’re often masking a passive voice–typically the verb “to be.”

Grammar Girl elaborates and makes my basic point: On sentence fragments. Note this comment in particular: “Sentence fragments in fiction can be a useful way of conveying pace, tone, and intensity. However, overuse can lead to lazy writing – fragments should be used sparingly, and for a good storytelling purpose.”

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