What is so interesting about fragmented sentences?
September 15, 2004 12:08 PM   Subscribe

[grammarfilter] But what is so interesting about fragmented sentences?

I received this request as a comment on my site, "I am a college student who has been assigned to give a 10 minute presentation on fragmented sentences. Any ideas about how to liven it up?" and I've been mulling it over all day to no avail.

Are there any famous quotes that are sentence fragments? Funny anecdotes? Examples from other languages?

Or, basically, what would make fragmented sentences interesting to you?
posted by codger to Writing & Language (14 answers total)
Used, as well as remarked upon, in David Moser's "This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:11 PM on September 15, 2004

She could liven it up by demonstrating that fragmented sentences are often the result of poor punctuation choices. This guide might give her some ideas. I think I might make this today's topic on my English language site :-)
posted by wackybrit at 1:23 PM on September 15, 2004

Nothing, my lord.


posted by grumblebee at 1:52 PM on September 15, 2004

the definition itself is a good starting place. to what extent is a poorly constructed normal sentence a fragment? a word on its own is usually a fragment - but what about a portion of a word? etc. the term is really a jargon word that is useful to grammarians, editors etc. but not so precise to others. so if it's jargon, make the case why the general public would benefit from knowing its proper use.

i would talk about how "fragments" of ancient writing typically have a much less elaborate grammar than their modern antecedants, and thus are doubly fragments. this leads naturally to talk about the relationship between the smallest discrete fragments of thought and sentence fragments. it also leads to information theory and the problem of making sure you've heard everything someone said: if nonsemantic articles or suffixes are added to a fragment-though, and their absence or disorder would be noticed, we have a good tool for insuring the orderly transmission of ideas. the brain doesn't have to work as hard with normal nonfragmentary sentences, because it gets a headstart parsing ambiguities about temporal relationships, causality, relative importance, etc.

contrast with modern poetry and advertising copy, which uses fragments in order to heighten ambiguity.

beginning language users speak nothing but memorized phrases and fragments.

fragments in the midst of smooth prose are the syntactical equivalents of the non sequitur, which does violence to the semantic train. but this violent jerkiness is simply a stylistic choice for some.

finally, fragmentary speech is normal in theatrical dialog and real speech, because often people finish each other's sentences, start sentences and abandon them, or establish a sort of template of things to be listed and then list them in fragmentary form. these tendencies are fascinating. and we live in a minimalist age, artistically. we are reading fewer books and more fragments of jerky internet and email prose. we are returning to a more naturalistic form of communication, a more primitive one.
posted by mitchel at 1:59 PM on September 15, 2004

Some list poems make great use of sentence fragments. I can't find or think of any right now, though. A sentence fragment can make a dramatic and abrupt end, a sort of emotional punctuation, as the last sentence of a paragraph. I liked the way Gibson used fragments in Idoru.

Wow. Guess I'm tapped out for the moment.
posted by Shane at 2:15 PM on September 15, 2004

It's hardly a classic of literature, but I think Bret Easton Ellis' "Rules of Attraction" begins and ends with the same sentence fragment...although maybe his idea was just that we were joining/leaving the narrator in mid-thought.

It's something like "and he said it's a very boring story but you don't have to listen."
posted by GaelFC at 4:01 PM on September 15, 2004

i would talk about how "fragments" of ancient writing typically have a much less elaborate grammar than their modern antecedants

I would first ascertain whether this is true.

Perhaps what the poster meant is that since we have less attested data from ancient writing, it is harder to investigate complex aspects of the grammar - this seems true. However, if the poster meant that ancient languages had less complex grammar than modern ones (btw, in conventional use, a thing usually only antecedes something else if it comes before the something else), then this is very likely not true (unless, perhaps, you go back to a point in time where we will have no writing samples). The claim that the typical ancient sentence fragment that's attested somewhere is less complex than the typical modern sentence fragment boils down to the same thing; we just have more of the modern ones.

For instance, ancient Egyptian is every bit as complex (at least to the extent that there's any way to measure such a thing) as any modern language, and this complexity is represented in the writing system. Hieroglyphs (and this is only one writing system representing egyptian languages) are NOT pictograms.
posted by advil at 5:48 PM on September 15, 2004

grumblee and shakespear illustrate, I think, that speech is often given in fragments.

"What did you do today?"


"Yes, today."

"Not much."

An interesting (to me) thing happens when people write narratives that tend to immitate spoken style: you end up often trammeling upon the rules of grammar. Examining this question could probably get you some great mileage in a presentation. Start it out by engaging someone in the class in a dialogue that's likely to have a similar construction to the one above. Maybe even a "How're you doing?" exchange could work:


"Good, good. Enjoying class today?"


Examine the Cordelia exchange. Talk about what exactly is going on here and why it's so different from the way we tend to write.
posted by weston at 7:03 PM on September 15, 2004

Examples from other languages?

Japanese commonly uses what might be thought of as fragmented sentences. The subject of a sentence is frequently dropped because it is implied by the context.

For example, beginning students of Japanese often translate "my name is SprintF" as "watashi no namae wa SuPurintoEfu desu." In practice, the subject (me) is implied, so you just say, "SuPurintoEfu desu." The analogous situation in English is, during a round of introductions, you just say, "Bob," rather than "my name is Bob."

To me, everyday Japanese often reads like advertising copy: "The 2005 SUX5000. Sleek. Roomy. And so affordable." Once the subject is introduced, it's implied until the writer introduces a different subject.
posted by SPrintF at 7:03 PM on September 15, 2004

Thank you all for your help.
posted by codger at 8:27 PM on September 15, 2004

May I just suggest that the title of the presentation be:

"Sentence Fragments. How bad are they?".

As to what Shane mentioned about list poems, Walt Whitman's "Spontaneous Me" is not only the ne plus ultra of list poems built on sentence fragments, it even contains the following meta line:

"Beautiful dripping fragments—the negligent list of one after another, as I happen to call them to me, or think of them".
posted by taz at 10:45 PM on September 15, 2004

Thanks, taz. Here's a fragment of "Spontaneous Me":
The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with,
The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder,
The hill-side whiten’d with blossoms of the mountain ash,
The same, late in autumn—the hues of red, yellow, drab, purple, and light and dark green,
The rich coverlid of the grass—animals and birds—the private untrimm’d bank—the primitive apples—the pebble-stones,
Beautiful dripping fragments—the negligent list of one after another, as I happen to call them to me, or think of them,
posted by Shane at 6:57 AM on September 16, 2004

May I just suggest that the title of the presentation be:

"Sentence Fragments. How bad are they?".

Good idea, but shouldn't it be "Sentence Fragments. How bad?"
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:48 AM on September 16, 2004

Fairly related: I had an art professor point out that our society tends to like Michelangelo's uncompleted works more than his finely polished ones, where during his time it would have been the opposite. Our society has romanticized the ideas of what's not said (perhaps because of Freud's ideas of the subconscious?), and so we find more value and interest in "filling in the blanks" rather than what seems to us the simple task of appreciating an artist's skill.

Fragments could be seen to work in the same way, with the listener's brain engaged in trying to fill in the blanks. Especially notable in drama, I think. (Harold Pinter's work is a fairly good example, from what I remember.)
posted by occhiblu at 11:45 AM on September 17, 2004

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