Some real sticklers for the grammar rulebook — like your high school English teacher, probably — would tell you that it’s never OK to use sentence fragments in your writing.
Those people are wrong. Very wrong.
(See what I did there?)
But wait! First ….
What Is a Sentence Fragment?
A sentence fragment is not a sentence. So, a fragment of a sentence? (OK, I’ll stop. Maybe)
That is the correct definition, though you can’t technically define a word or phrase using that word or phrase.
But a sentence fragment is a construct that looks like a sentence — it starts with a capital letter and ends with some sort of punctuation — but does not contain both a subject and a verb (thanks, Sophia.org).
A sentence fragment, then, is a sentence imposter trying to convince you, the reader, that it’s complete.
So, When Is a Sentence Fragment Acceptable?
According to Writer’s Relief, there are several cases where you might want to use a sentence fragment rather than a full sentence:
As Lines of Poetry
And old man.
A bad plan.
Death in the sand.
As Advertising Copy
The Moonlighting Writer — the last word in authors working after dark.
As Political Slogans
April Showers — Real Name. Real Results.
In Fictional Dialogue
People often speak in sentence fragments, even though you probably don’t realize it. Using this device in dialogue makes fictional conversations feel more authentic.
“Can you hand me that knife?” she asked.
“The one with the broken blade?” he asked back.
“No, I can’t very well stab you with a broken blade!”
“Oh. The one with the blood?”
To these, I’d add that some authors adopt sentence fragments as part of their writing style. It’s a viable device for using short thoughts to build tension.
The kind you can feel.
The kind that makes you want to know what comes next.
The kind that … makes you tense.
When Not to Use Sentence Fragments
You’ll want to skip sentence fragments in any kind of formal writing — or at least your audience will want you to skip them.
Sentence fragments in a cover letter likely won’t make a favorable impression on prospective employers, and fragments might get your paper rejected in the peer-review process.
Business letters, magazine or newspaper articles, and school papers are other places to avoid using sentence fragments.
And, while sentence fragments are accepted parts of some works of fiction, don’t be surprised if an editor asks you to complete the thoughts that you left dangling in your manuscript.
The bottom line is that sentence fragments are not as evil as Mrs. Harris let on in 11th grade English, and they can be powerful if used in the right context.
But you have to consider their use carefully because they’re not right for everyone or every situation.
Not even close.