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.

Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.