Breaking the Rules with Sentence Fragments
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Teachers generally warn student writers to avoid sentence fragments, but professional writers use sentence fragments effectively for a variety of reasons. Using Edgar Schuster's study of sentence fragments from The Best American Essays, this lesson encourages students to examine fragments in action, determine their effective rhetorical uses, and reflect on their own uses of sentence fragments.
- ReadWriteThink Printing Press: Students use this online tool to produce a brochure based on the information they learn in this lesson.
From Theory to Practice
In a 2006 article in English Journal, Edgar Schuster uses essays from The Best American Essays to demonstrate that professional writers used sentence fragments at the rate of .93 per page on average. This statistic flies in the face of English teachers who admonish their students to “avoid sentence fragments.” By closely examining the contexts in which professional writers use fragments, Schuster is able to formulate several rules for effective fragment use and encourages student writers to do so as well.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Computers with internet access
- Clip art or scrap magazines
- Sentence Fragment Pairs
- Creating Sentence Fragment Rules
- Sentence Fragment Brochure Rubric
- Judging Sentence Fragment Effectiveness
- Judging Sentence Fragment Effectiveness Sources (This is only for the teacher to know where the original sentences have come from. The tendency will be for students to think that professionally written sentence fragments are always effective, when that might not be the case, so they have a handout without the sources on it.)
This grammar-focused website explains what fragments are, explores ways to find and fix fragments, and provides a practice paragraph for finding and correcting fragments.
This site reviews the definition of sentence fragments and how to correct them.
This site not only defines and suggests ways to fix fragments but also mentions the possibility of stylistic fragments.
- Copy the Sentence Fragment Pairs handout (one for each class member).
- Copy the Creating Sentence Fragment Rules handout (one for each group member).
- Copy the Judging Sentence Fragment Effectiveness handout (one for each class member).
- Copy the Sentence Fragment Brochure Rubric (one for each student).
- Familiarize yourself with the RWT Printing Press student interactive and make sure that you have the appropriate software installed for it to run effectively. You will need computers with internet access for each student to use this interactive. If you need additional help with this interactive, please visit our Technical Help page.
- Examine suggested websites to decide if you want to do a minilesson on fragments before beginning this lesson.
- recognize sentence fragments.
- develop reasons why writers might want to use sentence fragments and state these reasons as "Rules for Writing Effective Sentence Fragments."
- create a brochure for writers on effective sentence fragment use.
- judge the effectiveness of sample sentence fragments.
- Review with students what sentence fragments are using the Purdue Owl site, Capital Community College Guide to Grammar and Writing, My English Teacher.net, or your own grammar handbook. You might do a minilesson on finding and fixing sentence fragments. Ask students why teachers might generally advise students to avoid sentence fragments. Students may suggest that teachers want their students to be technically correct in grammar usage, they don’t want students to appear ignorant in language usage, or that it’s just plain wrong to have sentence fragments in writing.
- Discuss with students how writers might feel about intentionally using sentence fragments. Do you think writers feel reluctant to do so? Do you think writers may feel as though their work will be looked down on? Or might writers feel rebellious in using sentence fragments?
- Hand out the Sentence Fragment Pairs sheet. Explain that these examples were taken from The Best American Essays and were written by professionals. Ask students to read the sentence fragments and their rewritten counterparts and then to determine how the fragments are functioning in the writing. Students may work in self-selected groups.
- In a whole-group discussion, have students volunteer what they discussed in their groups. Students may come up with the following:
- Fragments are used for emphasis.
- Fragments help writers express ideas in fewer words (help with economy).
- Fragments make the text sound like conversational English (create tone or register).
- Divide students into seven groups to correspond with the Creating Sentence Fragment Rules handout, and pass out the handout. In groups, students will read the fragments in their assigned section, write the sentence without a fragment, and then examine the fragments closely in order to formulate a rule for effectively using fragments.
- After students have had time to work, call the class back together. Have students read their examples and then state their rules for the other class members to write down so that they all have a complete set, which they will need for the second session.
Group Suggested Rule (from Schuster) The Cardinals To create a dramatic pause for emphasis, use a period instead of some other mark of punctuation (or, more rarely, no punctuation at all) before a sentence- terminating element. The Blue Jays To create intense emphasis and succinctness, delete all but one of the major elements of an independent clause. The Orioles To emphasize the individual items in a list or series, use a period rather than a comma between them. The Phillies To achieve a more natural, conversational tone as well as economy of expression, express questions in fragmented form. The Diamondbacks For naturalness and economy, also express responses to questions in fragmented form. The Marlins To give additional emphasis to negatives, isolate them as fragments. The Rays To make exclamations more terse, use their fragmentary form.
- If time allows, have students write their own sentences/paragraphs using the type of fragment they discussed in groups. Have them include some reflection on why their fragments were effective. Trade with other groups and have them discuss.
- Close with a short discussion: What did the students learn about sentence fragments today? Have their attitudes about the propriety of fragments changed?
- Quickly review the activity from session one with students to refresh their memory on sentence fragments.
- Divide students into groups for the next activity, creating a brochure.
- Explain that students will use the ReadWriteThink Printing Press student interactive to create a brochure for writers on sentence fragments using the Creating Sentence Fragment Rules handout they completed in the previous session.
- Share the Sentence Fragment Brochure Rubric with students and discuss the requirements with them. Have students use the rubric to create their own checklists of items to include as they are working on their brochures.
- Lead students through the first few steps of choosing the brochure, the layout, and adding a catchy title (suggestions: “Responsible Sentence Fragment Use” “Sentence Fragment Use and Abuse”). Students should use the Creating Sentence Fragment Rules handout as a rough draft from which to draw information and examples. Students might have sections on the definition of a sentence fragment and ways to correct them, stylistic use of fragments, and examples of effective fragments or other criteria for effective writing.
- Students might add clip art or magazine clippings for pictures after the brochure is printed.
- Have students display their brochures for others to comment on and appreciate. Students might consider adding the brochure to their writing portfolios as evidence of their knowledge about writing. Pass out the Judging Sentence Fragment Effectiveness handout and have students complete it as a ticket out the door or as homework for assessment of the lesson.
- Students should bring in their completed Judging Sentence Fragment Effectiveness handout as a ticket in the door.
- In groups, have students share and compare their responses to the fragments on the handout.
- Students should designate a group member to put one of the sentences on the board or overhead.
- Review students’ responses to the fragments, and help students come to consensus on sentence fragment effectiveness and the reasons why they are effective. In the case of ineffective fragments, have students compare their rewritten sentences. In some cases, consensus will probably not be possible, but reinforce the idea that the use of fragments is a stylistic choice that writers make.
- Bring the class to closure by having students articulate what they have learned about stylistic sentence fragments and their use. They might also reflect on their attitudes about fragment use. Has their attitude about using fragments changed? Would they be more or less likely to use fragments in papers in the future?
- Have students bring in examples of effective sentence fragments that they encounter in their own reading and discuss which “rule” applies.
- Have students attempt to write a sentence fragment in their next essay if it is stylistically appropriate.
- Have students look at papers they have previously written for sentence fragments use. If they have used fragments, have they been effective? If so, how? If not, (how) could they be made effective?
- Have students intentionally break other rules teachers have warned against, with justification breaking the rule makes their writing effective.
- Have students discuss fragment use throughout the rest of the course in their writer’s notes that accompany each paper they write.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Use the rubric suggested for the brochure, or have students add it to their writing portfolios as an artifact of their learning.
- Students could use the brochure to create a webpage, wiki, or blog site as a sort of companion or addition to the Capital Community College Guide to Grammar and Writing website (or other suggested websites) on fragments, which mentions the possibility of stylistic fragments. The webpage could link to the other sites, but it would extend those sites by demonstrating how fragments can be used effectively.
- Using the Judging Sentence Fragment Effectiveness handout, you can assess students’ understanding of effective sentence fragment use. You may give points for completion or thoroughness of answers.