Every sentence has to have a subject and a verb in order to be complete (remember what we said about subjects and verbs?). If it doesn't, it's a fragment. That's easy enough if you have something like
Unfortunately, there's a little more to it than that. You can have a group of words with both a subject and a verb that is still a fragment. Not fair? What is? So, before we go any further, we need to cover some basics.
A phrase is nothing more than a group of words. (See prepositions.)
A clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb. There are two types that you need to be able to distinguish:
- main (independent) clause: one that can stand alone and express a complete thought
- subordinate (dependent) clause: one that depends on another element for its complete meaning
A main clause is a complete sentence; a subordinate clause, because it depends on something else, isn't--even though it has a subject and a verb. A few examples should make this clear (subjects and verbs are bolded):
- I sit in front of the fireplace.
- We go for a walk.
- I like people.
These are all main clauses. The information might be sketchy, but the ideas are complete. Compare these with the following which are all subordinate clauses. There is a subject and a verb, but the ideas are incomplete.
- When it is cold.
- After the dishes are put up.
- Who pat my head and give me treats.
These are fragments because they are punctuated incorrectly. It's easy to spot this kind of mistake: just read your paper aloud, slowly and carefully, exactly as it is punctuated (that is, stop at each period). If anything is incomplete (a fragment), you should hear it.
Think about it: if I come into the room and haven't spoken to you, you'll be a little puzzled if all I say is "When it is cold." You're going to be waiting for more information. (Actually, you'd probably be more than puzzled if I said anything!)
One way to put these examples together clearly and correctly is:
Notice the punctuation. When a subordinate clause begins a sentence, always put a comma after it (#1). If the subordinate clause comes after the main clause, you usually need no punctuation (#2 and #3). With sentence 1 and 2, you could just as easily have written (again, pay attention to the punctuation):
Some of the words that create a subordinate clause are: after, although, as, because, before, if, since, that, unless, until, when, whether, which, while, and who. Watch out for these and check your sentences carefully to make sure they're punctuated correctly.
That's probably enough on fragments. Just remember: whatever is between that opening capital letter and the closing period in a sentence has to express a complete thought. Otherwise, you'll probably give your professor something to mark on your paper!
How about a "Self-Test" to see if you really understand.
© Scott Foll 2001. All rights reserved.