In Defense of Sentence Fragments

Last weekend, my father responded to my email to him by reminding me not to use sentence fragments. 🤭

How embarrassing!  It was almost as if I had used a swear word.  (Dad uses a lot of those himself, but would be shocked to see me let one fly from my keyboard.  Actually, I’d be shocked, too.)

My 85 year old father has a master’s degree in English, recites Victorian poetry from memory, and expects me to uphold some standards of decency when I put words to paper (or screen).  Fortunately for me, he does not read this blog.  Well, at least I think he doesn’t.  Umm, hi, Dad?

I write for a living (if you consider drafting policy documents and training programs to be writing, and I will surely excuse you if you do not), so there are no excuses.  I have coached my staff over and over again about the importance of avoiding sentence fragments.  Hey, man, I wanna see a subject and a verb, you dig?

Some say that sentence fragments are just plain laziness, but the real reason that they are so enticing is that they mimic the way we speak.  And suffice it to say that most of us don’t exactly speak the Queen’s English.  When we have a conversation, we interrupt, we speak over and under one another, and we use coded references that my fellow lawyers refer to as a “course of dealing.”  In other words, you and I understand what we mean based on our ongoing relationship (or at least based on earlier parts of the  conversation), whereas others not privy to our relationship (or our conversation) might think a particular word or phrase means something altogether different or might not have any idea of its meaning at all.

For example, I might drop the subject from a sentence because we already know what/whom we’re talking about.  This allows me to skip the formalities and go directly to the depth and color of adjectives, prepositional phrases and even (what the heck, let’s go all the way) interjections.

In this respect, formal English takes on a decided egalitarian cast.  Faithful use of subject and verb ensures that a stranger walking in on the middle of a conversation can understand what is going on despite the lack of a course of dealing or other contextual clues.

The other reason we like to use sentence fragments is because, well, they’re sexy.  They spice up the narrative.  You tell me which of the following snippets of dialogue is bound to be more appealing to the average reader:

He went yesterday?!  What do you mean?

or

Yesterday?!  What?!

While both of the above convey a degree of shock and incredulity, the former contains boring old subjects (he and you) and verbs (went and mean), while the latter contains neither.  The first consists of two fully formed sentences, while the latter is composed of two sentence fragments.  It isn’t necessary to provide the linguistic guideposts of subject and verb because context has already been provided earlier in the conversation.  Arguably, the second choice more accurately conveys the speaker’s emotions and makes for more interesting reading.

This phenomenon is not limited to dialogue and fiction.  In fact, among the most prevalent and influential uses of sentence fragments is modern advertising.  If you don’t believe me, just take a look at two of today’s most recognizable product tag lines:

Tastes great, less filling.

 

Lowest prices.  Always. 

The first example contains a verb (tastes), but nary a subject is to be found.  After all, it isn’t needed (because the reader or listener already knows what is being discussed).  If brevity is the soul of wit, why muck it up with surplus verbiage?  A sentence fragment will serve the purpose nicely.

The second example contains two sentence fragments, the first with a subject (prices) but no verb, the second with neither subject nor verb (just a lonely old adverb).  And yet, as a result of context, the reader understands the intended meaning perfectly.  Indeed, even a reader with few or no contextual clues can arguably discern the promise of regular discounts.  Do we really need to say “this establishment features the lowest prices available in the area?”

Thus, I submit to you, dear reader, that despite the protestations of the grammatical purists out there, sentence fragments do have their place in the English language.  Even in the emails of a lifelong word wrangler.

Sorry, Dad.

Flu Shot

My grandnephew is exactly one month old today.  He has resided in an incubator in the hospital since he was born.  Weight at birth:  About 1.7 pounds.  He has his own dedicated nurse attending to him, 24 hours a day.

Weylyn (I know… don’t ask) was two months premature and, to me at least, didn’t even look human.  The first time I saw him, the hospital had him swaddled to within an inch of his life.  I couldn’t even tell which end was the head and which the feet.

Today, he actually looks like a baby and won’t keep his arms tucked in because he likes to wave them around.  I hear he manages to dislodge the tubes they have connected to his little body.

I don’t even want to think about the hospital bills involved.  I’m guessing close to a million dollars at this point.

Meanwhile, my young nephew and his wife have taken to living in a trailer parked in the hospital lot, convenient to pumping and delivering breast milk every three or four hours.  About once a week, they go home for a proper shower and a nap in a decent bed.  Family visits them every day or two, bringing food or taking them out to eat.

The doctors say that Weylyn can go home when he weighs four pounds.  It shouldn’t be long, as he topped three pounds this week.  We suppose he’ll be over at our house a lot, particularly after his mother goes back to work.  My wife and her sister (who lives with us) have volunteered for day care duties.

Well, the hospital says that anyone who comes into contact with Weylyn needs to have a flu shot.  Gulp!

I am one of those needle phobic wimps and haven’t had a flu shot for almost twenty years (and even then only because my doctor collared me at an office visit and wouldn’t let me leave without one).

My 85 year old father got his annual flu shot last week, but Mom, who had surgery a month ago, decided to pass.  Not long ago, waiting for a blood draw in the Kaiser lab, I heard an old man complaining about how last year he got a flu shot and came down with the flu anyway.  Is this whole thing a fool’s errand?

Yeah, I know.  Weylyn.

I don’t trust flu shots.  I received one when I was in my 20s that left me sick in bed for days.  I’m told it all depends on the particular strain they use in the vaccine in a given year, whether it’s live or killed, and I don’t know how many other factors.

Oh, and I hear that if you’re over 55 years old, which my wife and I both are, they inject you with a super strong dose so that you don’t die when a sneaky flu bug gets into your body and causes your immune system to give up the ghost.

I like to think things have improved since the 1980s, but about ten years ago, many of my coworkers took advantage of a flu vaccine clinic at my job and proceeded to get sick.  So maybe things haven’t changed so much.

Except that they have.  On Saturday, I grabbed my cane and hobbled down what felt like a mile of corridors to the flu clinic at Kaiser Hospital.  My wife, who doesn’t do flu shots either, got one as well.  “I’m only doing this for Weylyn,” she told me.  Um, that’s for sure!  The things you’ll do for a little preemie baby.  Sheesh!

I pulled my left arm out of my shirt, felt the alcohol swab, and prepared for the pain of a long needle making its insidious way into my muscle.

But it never happened.  It took about two seconds and the Kaiser lady said “all done.”  I barely felt anything.  Modern times!

So, does this mean that I’m not going to be stuck in bed puking for the next three days?

A Tale of Two Hospitals (Mom’s Surgery – Part III)

Three weeks have come and gone since my parents left our home and returned to the Central Valley following Mom’s surgery.  Just when it all started to feel like a bad dream, Mom let me know that she may need to have a second surgery.

And finally, after avoiding the subject, in a phone conversation with her this week, we started to come to grips with the unholy trinity:  Surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy.  This has turned into the dreaded nightmare from which you cannot wake up.

I’d rather not remember the details of Mom’s surgery.  My parents stayed with us a full week, Dad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the living room, Mom sleeping on the couch before and after her hospital stay, everyone in the house stressed out to the max.  I had to stay out of work to play babysitter and chauffeur.  Attending services with my parents on the first night of Rosh Hashannah and leaving early because Mom didn’t feel well.  Ferrying them back and forth to Kaiser in Sacramento for testing, admission, post-operative doctor visits.  Mom crying on the phone to Kaiser because she’s being transferred from one office to the next, no one seeming to know what time she should report for surgery.  Meeting the surgeons after they put an IV into Mom.  Not knowing what to say to them.  Not knowing how to reassure Mom.  Not knowing freaking anything anymore.  Feeling dumb as a sack of beans.  Horrible pain for Mom, endless waiting for the rest of us.  Carrying around my laptop and trying to get some work done during the waiting.  Hobbling around the hospital with my cane.

Mom, pumped full of morphine and still in pain despite the drugs, begging the hospital staff to let her stay in post-op a little longer.  Request denied. Kaiser trying to send her home before she was ready, resulting in Mom crying and horribly abusing the nurses.  Mom being fitted with a catheter, but not before being shown a scary film about catheter care and the awful things that can happen if you mess up.  Mom yelling that the catheter felt like someone trying to forcibly have intercourse with her.  Going into the bathroom with Mom to assure her that she did not break the emptying valve.  First night back at our house, Mom waking me up by kicking my bedroom door at 2 in the morning, yelling that she was having an emergency and needed to go back to the hospital.  Carrying on about red streaks near her wound and how the literature given to her by the hospital said she should contact her doctor immediately if she experiences such symptoms.  Mom dropping her pants so I could see.  Um, a son isn’t supposed to do this, uh, right?  Me assuring her that it’s just normal bruising. Go back to bed, Mom.  Mom blurting out that my wife hates having her here and that she is going to divorce me.  No, Mom, she’s not going to divorce me.  Sigh.

A full week after their arrival, my parents finally headed home.  Thirty minutes after they left, my grandnephew was born at a different Kaiser hospital, two months premature.  He weighed just over a pound and a half and went straight to neonatal intensive care, where he remains.  My wife and her sister drive down there about four times a week to be supportive of my young nephew and his wife.  I go about once a week.  You know me:  Have cane, will hobble down hospital corridors.  Hit the sink and scrub up to my elbows so I can see the baby in his incubator.  Hobble back down the hall to sit with family.

I think there’s an ancient oriental curse:  May your life be filled with hospitals.

As for Mom, she is recovering nicely, feeling better with those heavy teratomas removed, but feeling too tired to do much.  It will take time, I’ve assured her.  At least it isn’t cancer.  A blood test before the surgery reassured us of this.

Then one of the surgeons called Mom last week.  Um, we looked at the contents of the teratomas under a microscope and squamous cancer cells were found.  We were shocked!  We’ve never seen this before.  We have to do a PET scan in November to see whether cancer has metastasized to other parts of your body.

I now call Mom three times per week.  She vents and I listen.  Listening is good, I tell myself.  All you can do is be there for her.  I can only hope that I am doing this right.  For after spending a life as a writer, a man of words, I find that they have disintegrated into a meaningless babble of syllables, vowels, consonants.  The words, my trusty tools, my stock in trade, have deserted me.  And I don’t know what to say.

Mom’s Surgery – Part II

When I met my parents for lunch in Sacramento on Monday, Mom was irritated and in a foul mood. They had made the three and a half hour drive for a doctor appointment at Kaiser, a supposedly necessary connection to set a surgery date at UC Davis.

Except that Kaiser refused to do any such thing. UC Davis? They simply claimed not to know what Mom was talking about. Despite what my parents may have been told at Kaiser in Fresno, Kaiser in Sacramento insisted that they don’t schedule surgery at UC Davis. Any surgery would have to be done at Kaiser’s own hospital in Sacramento. And anyway, there were no available surgery dates for months.

Understandably, Mom wondered which Kaiser facility was lying to her. I voted for Sacramento on that score. Why would Kaiser in Fresno tell her that the surgery could be done at the respected teaching hospital at UC Davis if that were not true?

Answer: To shut my sister up. Sis had driven down to support Mom at her gynecology appointment at Kaiser in Fresno a few weeks ago. Mom related that Sis and the doctor got along famously, Sis rambling on about her work as a sonographer. But Mom’s medical record betrayed a different story. Mom only found out because the doctor in Sacramento inexplicably read aloud the part of the record characterizing Sis as a meddler unhappy with her mother’s care. I can only conclude that the nonexistent Davis option was the Fresno doctor’s way of mollifying Sis. When Mom reported this to my sister, the latter got on the phone to Kaiser in Fresno to complain, only to be told that she must have misunderstood.

So Davis is out. I suggested to Mom that if she was going to have the surgery at Kaiser, she might as well have it done at their Fresno hospital, where she’d be close to home. No, she told me, apparently the surgery that she needs to remove her teratomas is sufficiently specialized that Kaiser does not do it in Fresno.

The surgeon in Sacramento, whom Mom characterized as a young kid “who I wouldn’t hire as a waitress,” never shut up for a minute and never let Mom get a word in edgewise. To add further ambience to our lunch, Mom was fighting with Dad (what else is new ::eye roll::), who she insisted had consistently sided with the young floozie against her.

The next day, Mom was informed that a cancellation had resulted in an available surgery appointment on October 1 at Kaiser’s Sacramento hospital. Since it falls on a Tuesday, Mom agreed. Any day but Friday. “People die when they have surgery on Friday,” she explained.

The only problem is that Mom’s scheduled surgery falls on Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year (one of our High Holy Days). Mom was clearly conflicted about this, but I assured her that she had made the right decision. She’s been feeling pretty lousy lately and, well, that’s when a surgery date was available. Waiting months for the surgery just to avoid the holiday made no sense to me.

The young surgeon opined that she could do the surgery laparoscopically, getting Mom sprung from the hospital after just an overnight stay. I am not sure why I am a bit skeptical. Regardless, my parents will be arriving next weekend, sleeping on the blow-up mattress in our living room. Pre-op is Monday, then surgery on Tuesday. I have arranged for some time off work and will be chauffeuring them the 45 minutes each way to Sacramento for the duration, however long that may turn out to be.

There are entirely too many things that can go wrong, both at my house and at the hospital. I remind myself to calm down and put it all in perspective.

After all, it could be me going under the knife.

Mom’s Surgery – Part I

My parents are 85 years old. My mother needs to have surgery to remove her ovaries that have developed three huge teratomas, one of which, a CAT scan revealed, is filled with blood. She feels bloated and uncomfortable and wants to get the surgery over with so she can get on with her life.

Kaiser down in Fresno, near my parents’ home, has decided to send Mom up here to have her surgery in Sacramento. My parents are making the three and a half hour trip today to complete paperwork at a local Kaiser facility. They are bringing a suitcase packed with clothes. Mom does not intend to go home until after the surgery. She wants to be admitted to UC Davis Hospital. Now.

Well, I tell her, the sooner she has the surgery, the sooner she’ll feel better. She’s tired of not being able to walk around, not being able to do housework, not being able to garden, not being able to cook, not being able to go up and down the aisles at Winco.

My guess is that the surgery will be scheduled a few weeks off and they will have to go home after all. But Mom is hoping that there will just happen to be an immediate opening.

Mom says the surgeons will try to get everything done laparoscopically, in which case she’ll only have to spend one day in the hospital post-surgery. If they have to open her up, she’ll be stuck there for three or four days.

My parents plan to stay in a hotel for exactly one night after Mom is released from the hospital, just in case things go awry and she has to be readmitted. Then they’re heading straight home, despite the potential discomfort of her stitches being jostled about for such a long car ride. You don’t want to be moaning in bed in some little motel room, she tells me. Au contraire. She wants to have everything she needs conveniently at hand. “Sometimes you want something strange to eat,” she explained to me over the phone. “Like a piece of bread and butter.”

The visit to Kaiser today is likely just a formality, Mom tells me. “Paperwork,” she explains. Like the one foreswearing lawsuits against Kaiser if it all goes sideways. And the one where she declines to be an organ donor. And the one where she declines a DNR order. “If they want to put me on life support, let them,” she tells me. “It’s not as if I feel so bad that I’m ready to give up and die. Maybe if I were 90 years old or something.”

I haven’t the heart to mention that the milestone to which she refers is only four and a half years away. And anyway, what’s so magic about the age of ninety? Plenty of people live to 100 these days, particularly women. I’m putting my money on Mom joining the Century Club.

Now all she has to do is get through this surgery. And the uncomfortable recovery therefrom.

The Jim

My parents are visiting us this weekend. Mom and Dad are 85 years old and have been married to each other for 66 years. That kind of longevity boggles my mind. Then again, my boss at work tells me that her parents are ages 90 and 94 and also have been married forever.

When we visited my parents at their home in the Central Valley a few weeks ago, Dad opined that it’s really silly for people to refer to the rest room as “the John.” He’s renamed it the Jim, he tells me. That way, he can impress people by proudly announcing that the first thing he does when he gets up every morning is go to the Jim.

Mom says she’s depressed because she’s always alone. Dad is there, of course, but he can’t hear too well anymore, and besides, he prefers to sit by himself either in the shade of the patio awning or in his recliner in the living room. Lost in his own thoughts, he will soon be snoring.

Dad watches TV with the volume turned up to deafening levels, so he does so in the office with the door closed. Meanwhile, Mom stretches out on the couch and watches TV alone in the family room. Being out in the boondocks without a satellite dish, my parents are stuck with limited choices available on over-the-air stations. Mom gravitates toward old westerns, while Dad enjoys his crime and murder shows, as well as the news and the opera that airs at noon on weekdays.

A few months ago, my parents decided to visit their daughter at her new home in Boston. It was to be a nine-day trip. Their grandson from here in California would travel with them, helping them in the airport, with the luggage, with the rental car. Then, a couple of weeks ago, they decided it was all too much and canceled their plans. I think they made the right decision.

For one thing, ascending and descending a big flight of stairs in an old 19th century house would be asking for trouble. Plus, their host is a dedicated vegetarian while my parents are of a more carnivorous persuasion. Also, I don’t think they have the energy to traipse around Beantown with the tourists. When their daughter asked my mother what she wanted to do during her visit, Mom reportedly replied “sit on the porch.”

Finally, the simple fact is that my parents are most comfortable in their own home. Even this weekend, they are staying over with us for one night only. Dad is rather attached to sleeping in his own bed.

With the amount of traveling I do for work, I can relate.

The Commuter Life: Ready, Set, Go!

Tessie, my sister’s new toy, er, commuter car.

My sister recently texted me a photo of her newest acquisition, a shiny black Tesla. “This is Tessie. Pretty no?” she asked by way of introduction. “She’s sitting in the garage sipping electricity.”

The thing costs almost as much as I earn in an entire year. But then again, the garage in which Tessie imbibes electrons is part of my sister’s million dollar plus home on a mountain overlooking San Francisco Bay. Tessie is now her commuter car.

Someone needs to tell Sis that she is doing things backwards. Thousands of Bay Area employees cannot afford to live there and endure hellish daily commutes from the exurbs just to keep their jobs. Sis, who has always been a bit of a firebrand, has decided to buck the trend. While she has been unable to escape the fate of the supercommuter who spends hours behind the wheel, she at least gets to do it in reverse, and on a nontraditional work schedule, to boot. She commutes from her fancy home in the East Bay against traffic to two jobs in the Central Valley. She mitigates the distance by working both weekend days and by staying over with my parents two nights per week.

I feel sorry for my parents.

Mom and Dad are well in their eighties, but that doesn’t stop Sis from upending their routine on a weekly basis. My sister leaves her junk all over the place at my parents’ house, then disappears for a week. If my parents try to clean up, when Sis returns she throws a fit about not being able to find anything. Oh, and she brings my parents food and expects them to cook it for her.

Granted, I would not enjoy living the type of commuter lifestyle that my sister has fallen into. And so, the vagaries of fate being such as they are, the commuter lifestyle went out and found me instead. It’s about to bite me on the nose.

At the improbable age of 60, my wife and I have just purchased our first home. On the salary of a public servant, we cannot begin to afford the hyperinflated prices of houses near my workplace in Sacramento. We ended up buying a newly-constructed home in a bland subdivision in an exurb requiring a commute that nearly rivals my sister’s.

I’ll have a better idea of how this odyssey will play out when I embark on this new challenge next week. What I do know at this point is that I must leave our new home no later than 5 a.m. for the 45-minute drive downtown if I am to be assured of a parking space. Coming home, however, will be far worse. The outbound commuter traffic on Interstate 5 during the afternoon rush is reminiscent of the parking lot known as the Long Island Expressway. Not that I would even attempt it. I panic at the very thought of merging into freeway traffic from the downtown streets at rush hour. I am not prepared to take my life in my hands. So I figured out an alternate route through surface streets that is likely to take me at least an hour and a half. I know, I should count my blessings when thousands sit in their cars for four to six hours each day. It’s just that it will take me some time to get used to the commuter life.

My chief concerns are the cost of filling up my gas tank every day ($4/gallon out here), the fact that my already aging vehicle will surely give up the ghost on Highway 99 one fine morning, and that I already struggle to fight off sleep on a relatively short 30-minute commute. My plan is to pull into a fast food parking lot about halfway home and take a nap in my car before hitting the freeway. This, of course, will extend my commute to encompass even more of my day.

I am fortunate that my very generous wife has agreed to drive me in and home two days per week. On those days, I can put my seat back and saw logs while in transport. As for the other three days, I’ve made contingency plans for those inevitable times when there are simply no parking spaces to be found anywhere near my place of employment. I will simply drive another half hour to a suburban shopping center and will wait there for Uber to pick me up and transport me downtown. After work, I’ll have to pay for another Uber to take me back to my car. On the bright side, my drive home will be shorter on such days.

All in all, I anticipate that the commuter life will turn out to be an expensive time suck that I’ll never really get used to. And then there’s the whole fossil fuels/carbon footprint/destruction of the planet thing. Perhaps it’s time to follow my sister’s lead and buy a Tesla. Not that I can begin to afford one now that, in my old age, I have finally become a real adult with mortgage payments.

Clearly, there is only one solution to the problem of getting back and forth to work. Beam me up, Scotty!