People often think sentence fragments are bad, but they are actually a writer’s best friend when used properly. This article explores sentence structure in depth, and acquaints the reader with the seven types of sentence fragments. You will learn how to write beautiful, strong sentences that are varied and complex. This lesson is for beginner to advanced native and ESL students and teachers. In short, everyone can learn something by studying the seven different types of sentences that exist in the English language.
This article contains the following sections, feel free to jump down to any of them:
- Why Grammar is so Difficult!
- Types of Sentences
- What is a Sentence Fragment
- The 7 Sentence Fragments
- Examples of the 7 Sentence Fragments
- Examples of Long Sentences Using Many Fragments
- Sentence Fragment Lessons for English/ESL Teachers
Why Grammar is so difficult!
Even for native English speakers, grammar is difficult. Subject, predicate, dangling modifiers, fragments, semi-colons… Ah! Where do we begin?
I learned English grammar in high-school, but those classes were boring; I had more important things to concentrate on, such as the outfit I was wearing, or how dreamy Cory Haim was in License to Drive. When I started teaching grammar as an ESL teacher, I had to actually re-teach myself grammar because I didn’t remember anything.
And guess what? Even after reading books on grammar, I still didn’t understand it!
Until I found out about the seven types of sentence fragments. Suddenly I had an ah-hah moment. Punctuation started to make sense. My own writing became much stronger and I felt like I had an intuitive grasp on grammar. I started teaching this techniques to my students and they made real progress in their writing.
Understanding how to use these fragments properly will help you:
- Write sentences that are grammatically correct, because you will finally understand grammar
- Write longer sentences
- Write sentences that have different structures, which is important for rhythm and flow (the musical aspects of writing)
- Use commas properly, because you will finally know where to put them!
I am convinced that most writers–beginner and advanced–need more practice in understanding and using sentence fragments properly, and I hope this lesson will help you learn to write more eloquent and grammatically correct sentences.
Types of Sentences
There are three types of sentences in English:
- A simple sentence (also known as a main clause or independent clause) is Subject-Verb-Object:
- I ran to the store.
- A compound sentence is two simple sentences joined with a conjunction—and, for, so, nor, but:
- I ran to the store and I bought milk. (subject is the same, so we skip it the second time and write: I ran to the store and bought milk)
- I ran to the store but the store was closed. (object is the same, so we write: I ran to the store, but it was closed)
- A complex sentence is a simple sentence or a compound sentence with at least one fragment (dependent clause)
- I ran to the store, hoping to buy milk, but it was closed.
A Simple Sentence (Main Clause)
The following two sections deal with basic grammar, so if you are an advanced English user, skip to the section, ‘Examples of the 7 Fragment Types’.
A main clause is a sentence, a very simple sentence. A main clause has the main ingredients of any true English sentence: a noun, a verb, and a complete idea. Every sentence MUST have at least one main clause, but if all of your sentences are main clauses, then your writing will sound simplistic and choppy, like a child’s:
I like soccer. It is fun. We go to play everyday. My mother comes with me. She kicks the ball. I kick it back to her. It is so fun. I love soccer.
On the other hand, if you write a fragment as a sentence, your writing will be grammatically incorrect:
Hiking up the mountain. To eat a great lunch. The sunset at the top of the mountain.
- “Hiking up the mountain” is not a main clause, because it does not have a complete idea. Hiking up the mountain and what? What happened? Who hiked? Where is the subject of the sentence? Where is the verb? –> “Hiking up the mountain, we saw a beautiful sunset.” Or: “We were hiking up the mountain.” (now, be careful: you might think that hiking is a verb, but it is not! It isn’t a verb because it can never stand alone, like all -ing verbs, it needs another verb to help it).
- “To eat a great lunch” is not a main clause, because it does not have a verb, or a subject. Who ate the great lunch? –> “We stopped to eat a great lunch.”
- “The sunset at the top of the mountain” is not a main clause, because it does not have a verb! What happened? –> “The sunset at the top of the mountain was amazing”
The 7 conjunctions are: and, so, for, but, or, nor & yet. These are also known as correlating conjunctions and their job is to connect two complete sentences.
- I have a great mountain bike, so I go out riding every weekend.
- I love to eat fruit and I love to eat vegetables. (the sentence is short, and the subject and verb are the same in both parts, so we cut out the repetition and say: I love to eat fruit and vegetables)
- I’m thinking about majoring in pharmacology, but maybe I’ll study homeopathy.
What is a Sentence Fragment?
A sentence fragment is a part of a sentence that you must add to a main clause because it is not complete by itself. People often think that sentence fragments are bad, but they are actually a writer’s best friend when they are used properly. The problem comes when you try to use a sentence fragment alone, without a main clause. Then your teacher will mark on your paper with a big, fat red mark: FRAGMENT! But don’t be fooled, if you add that fragment to a main clause, you will have a great sentence.
There are seven types of sentence fragments and they all have their own special uses. Learn them! You will be so happy you did.
The 7 Sentence Fragments
Grammar can seem really confusing, mostly because no one ever boils it down to ‘7 different types of sentence fragments’. Once I understood that there are only 7 ways to add to a main clause (a simple sentence: subject-verb-object), I found it much easier to understand syntax. For more info on what grammar is, see my post What is Grammar?
Much of the following explanation is taken (and greatly adapted) from the book that helped me understand sentence fragments–Mastering Essential English Skills–which is an old book from 1977 that I found at my local second hand bookstore, Companion Book.
Here is a list of the 7 fragments (you can also download the lesson I made, Advanced Sentences, to use in your own English class):
- Prepositional phrase
- Appositional phrase (what I call an ‘explanation phrase’)
- Participial phrase
- Gerund phrase
- Infinitive phrase
- Adverb clause
- Adjective clause
Yes, I know, you are saying, “What?! What is a Gerund? What is a participial?!” Don’t worry, I’m going to explain it all. It’s actually VERY EASY!
Examples of the 7 Fragment Types
The following examples are very simple, just to get the idea across, so if you would like to see these fragments in action, in very long sentences, jump down to the next section ‘Examples of Long Sentences, Using Many Fragments’.
#1. Prepositional Phrase
A prepositional phrase is a fragment that starts with a preposition, such as: in, on, near, above, regarding, according to, in spite of, etc. Download a complete list of prepositions here. Prepositional phrases are an excellent way to start a sentence, but don’t use them in every sentence or your writing will sound repetitious.
- Main clause: I enjoyed my run.
- With prepositional phrase: In spite of the rain, I enjoyed my run.
*Note that a prepositional phrase can come after the main clause: I enjoyed my run, in spite of the rain. But also note that if you use your main clause at the beginning of a sentence, you will be limited in your choice of fragments that can follow (ie. your sentence will probably be shorter. See the long sentences in the next section and note how the main clause is always in the middle).
#2. Appositional Phrase
An appositional phrase (explanation phrase) is a noun-based fragment (no verb in it) that explains a bit of info about the preceding noun.
- His dog, a beagle, is a very friendly fellow.
- My oldest sister, Margot, is jealous of me.
- Tonight I’m writing a post for my blog, learning2grow.org.
- Canada, a very beautiful country, is north of America.
*Note that if you take out the fragment (the words in bold) then you still have a complete sentence. Also note that none of the fragments (in bold) can stand as a main clause on its own. You can also use dashes — and brackets () instead of commas. Dashes intensify the information (make it stronger) and brackets soften the information. For example: Canada — a very beautiful country — is north of America. Or: Canada (a very beautiful country) is north of America.
#3. Participial Phrase
A participial phrase is a fragment that uses a specific type of past-tense verb (a participial) that acts like an adjective. This participial verb is not a true verb.
- Kevin couldn’t find the path, covered by the drifting snow. (comma optional)
- Dissatisfied with my coffee, I went to the store to buy milk.
*Note that you could write this last sentence out as two main clauses joined with a conjunction: I was dissatisfied with my coffee, so I went to the store to buy milk. ‘Dissatisfied’ is an adjective: I was angry, I was happy, I was dissatisfied.
#4. Gerund Phrase
A Gerund phrase is a fragment that uses a verb with an ‘ing’ ending (please note: a gerund is NOT a true verb! it needs another verb to work: I am running…. I was hoping…).
- I earn money on the weekends, washing dishes at the local diner. (comma optional)
- Hoping to get a job, I put my resume on Craigslist.
*Note that commas are often optional, depending on the length of the clause. Although it’s not necessary, I have put a comma into the first example because that is my style. See my post on creating your own style guide.
#5. Infinitive Phrase
An Infinitive phrase is a fragment using the infinitive form of the verb ‘to’ (to eat, to walk, etc.). This is also not a true verb! It also needs another verb to work: I like to eat. I want to run. In this situation, the infinitive is acting as the object of the sentence.
- We all stood around watching Jim at the park to see if he could pull off a backward handstand.
- The mad scientist worked frantically to complete his experiment before the police came.
*Note that the infinitive never comes at the beginning of the sentence. Also note that this fragment use of the infinitive is different from the main clause use of the infinitive (I like to run). In the main clause use of the infinitive, the infinitive is acting as an object and completes the sentence (‘I like’ is not a sentence).
#6. Adjective Clause
An Adjective clause uses ‘who’ ‘which’ or ‘that’ and is called an adjective clause because its job is to describe the noun of the main clause.
- The bedrooms that we painted during the summer look cheerful and bright.
- The bedrooms, which we painted during the summer, look cheerful and bright.
**Read more: That or Which?: Don’t Misuse These Relative Pronouns. Hint: commas come before ‘which’, but never before ‘that’.
- I really like Kirsty’s new friend Patrick, who came to the party with a cake.
- I really like Picasso, whose paintings are synonymous with Cubism.
#7. Adverb Clause
An Adverb clause uses ‘because’ ‘if’ ‘although’ ‘when’ (and others) and is called an adverb clause because its job is to describe the verb of the main clause.
- I like to swim at the pool when it gets too cold to go for hikes.
- When it gets too cold to go for hikes, I like to swim at the pool. (when you put the clause first you MUST use a comma)
- I’ll choose something that is environmentally friendly if I buy a car.
- If I buy a car, I’ll choose something that is environmentally friendly. (Again, you must use a comma)
- I want to complete a Masters degree, although it’s very expensive.
**Note that commas here are optional, as is the case with many fragments. A comma is a device that, among other things, helps the reader identify what is the main clause and what is a fragment; if your sentence is very short, it’s often fine to do without the comma. In journalism, the practice is to use fewer commas. In literature, the practice is to use more. In my post “Create your own personal style guide” I talk about how to develop your own writing style–the most important thing is to be consistent!
Examples of Long Sentences Using Many Fragments
Reader discretion advised: DO NOT practice the following for marks in your next English exam; these sentences are much too long and are cumbersome for the reader, but they are grammatically correct. The part in bold is the main clause.
- Under the tree, near the house where I grew up, in a box that I buried under four feet of black, tear-stained soil are the remains of my beloved dog, Mandy, who was the truest friend of my childhood years, a time full of turmoil and insecurity. (Structure of this sentence: Prepositional phrase + prepositional phrase + start of main clause + interrupting adjective clause + end of main clause + appositional phrase + adjective clause + appositional phrase).
- Shocked by the sudden imposition of this stranger, a man who I bumped into on the subway, on my way home from work, I dropped my papers on the ground; whereupon he helped me pick them up, touching my hand ever-so-slightly as he passed them to me, saying that he really meant it when he’d said that I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met. (participial phrase + appositive phrase + prepositional phrase + main clause; conjunction + main clause + gerund phrase + gerund phrase).
- Although endorphins, a neuropeptide released by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland during times of danger and stress, can act as both stimulant and pain suppressant, the release of endorphins during child-birth has been known to cause the circular, lower uterine muscles to close, creating ineffective contractions and thereby stalling the birthing process, causing the need for medical interventions that have been linked to negative, long-term effects to a child’s well-being. (Beginning of adverb clause + interrupting appositive phrase + prepositional phrase + end of adverb clause + main clause + gerund phrase + conjunction + adjective clause + gerund phrase + adjective clause).
Fragment Sentence Lessons for English/ESL Teachers
I have used the previous explanation of the 7 types of sentence fragments to help students understand the concepts, but in order for them to really ‘get it’ and practice using fragments in their own writing, I developed some lessons:
- Practice identifying the main clause in long sentences–you will be surprised at how difficult this is for students. Help them understand that a main clause will always have at least one real verb (A gerund, participial and infinitive are not real verbs).
- Write the 7 fragment types on the board and then pick a book (the later Harry Potter books have some wicked long sentences) and have the students freely identify each fragment type. Give some prompts if necessary, by pointing out key fragment types of words, like prepositions, gerunds, etc. I recommend doing this together as a class quite a few times, before getting them to do it alone or in groups, because it is very confusing in the beginning. Practice this regularly.
- Once students have excelled in this (3 lessons of about half an hour each, with fun practice), stop putting the fragment types on the board, and continue identifying fragment types once in a while. Ideally you want to do this whenever someone in your class comes across a longer, beautifully constructed sentence, and it should take no more than a minute or two, so it isn’t really part of the lesson plan anymore.
- To reinforce their use of strong sentences, you can have students choose one sentence and then write ‘copy-cat’ sentences that have the same fragment/main-clause structure, but using different verbs and nouns. Start easy, with only one fragment, and then slowly choose longer sentences, with more fragments, as students get better.
- Have them write a one paragraph story (about what they did/will do in the summer, for example), with the rule that they must have at least one of every type of fragment in the story.
Don’t Forget to Download My Free Lesson!
Download my lesson, Advanced Sentences, and feel free to use or adapt it, without copyright.