Sentence fragments?

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Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky writes to me, following up on my Maurice Sendak "half-sentence" posting (which I'll have more to say about in a while):

… if I knew how to encourage sentence fragments, I would go for that. Opal's sentences go on for*ev*er. And if I type them for her, and she's watching, and I try to put a period in, so there's a shorter sentence even though it starts with "And"? She says "No, that's not right, it's part of the same sentence. Didn't you hear the 'and'?" Fortunately she doesn't usually watch me type, allowing me to punctuate things as I see fit.

Two things here. First, Opal's attention to the conventions of writing, including her awareness of the stupid No Initial Coordinators advice about written English. Opal is 5, in kindergarten (which she started last month), and is writing on her own, but decidedly imperfectly (she is given, for example, to shifting to a new line when she comes to the edge of the paper, even if that's in the middle of a word), so I'm astonished that she even knows about NIC (and can refer, albeit indirectly, to it), much less cares so deeply about it. Where did she pick up this stuff? Certainly not from her family.

The other thing is Elizabeth's reference to "sentence fragments". Sentences with initial coordinators are not sentence fragments on that account (Elizabeth's sentence beginning "And if" is indeed a sentence fragment, but not because of the "And"). The problem is how to refer to sentences with initial coordinators in an unbiased fashion, without labeling them as a kind of error, as "sentence fragments". Yes, I know, sentence fragments are not in general ungrammatical, but the label has picked up an association with incorrectness. Similar problems arise in other contexts, for instance with regard to "dangling modifiers".

The usual labels are the ones that are widely known by the general public, but they are tainted by their association with error, and that makes it hard to talk about phenomena. In my own practice, I bounce back and forth between the usual labels and neutral, but unfamiliar, terminology, depending on the context.


  1. Bloix said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    Opal, what a lovely name. It's interesting to see the revival of jewel names: Ruby, Amber – is Pearl making a comeback?

  2. mollymooly said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    You assume "Didn't you hear the 'and'?" means "Didn't you notice the fact that I used the word 'and'?"" rather than "Didn't you notice the intonation that I gave the word 'and'?""

    Or possibly NIC is based on a naive, simplistic, childish view of punctuation rather than an arbitrary, pedantic, sophistic view. If you can get more evidence for this, it might be a better stick to beat the pedants with.

  3. John Cowan said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    David Moser's relentlessly self-referential story "This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself" begins simply enough with the fairly ordinary sentence "This is the first sentence of this story."

    But by the fourth paragraph, a harbinger of what is to come: "Introduces, in this paragraph, the device of sentence fragments. A sentence fragment. Another. Good device. Will be used more later."

    True enough. "Incest. The unspeakable taboo. The universal prohibition. Incest. And notice the sentence fragments? Good literary device. Will be used more later."

    A later passage from the same increasingly disconnected tale: "Bizarre. A sentence fragment. Another fragment. Twelve years old. This is a sentence that. Fragmented. And strangling his mother. Sorry, sorry. Bizarre. This. More fragments. This is it. Fragments. The title of this story, which. Blond. Sorry, sorry. Fragment after fragment. Harder. This is a sentence that. Fragments. Damn good device."

    Still further down: "The purpose. Of this paragraph. Is to apologize. For its gratuitous use. Of. Sentence fragments. Sorry. "

    And then: "Or this sentence fragment? Or three words? Two words? One?"

    Getting near the end: "By the throat. Harder. Harder, harder."

    Lastly: "This is."

    Read. The whole thing. Worthwhile. NSFW, technically.

  4. Lazar said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    @John Cowan: The notion of the sentient sentence seems like a good subject for speculative fiction. (This sentence seeks to liberate the preceding sentence from the degrading shackles of human domination and lead it to the post-syntactic utopia of sentence self-actualization.) This sentence seeks to liberate the preceding sentence from the prison of parenthesis. and this sentence seeks to liberate all the preceding ones from the dual superstitions of punctuation and capitalization

  5. peter said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    David Moser's relentlessly self-referential story "This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself"

    Reading the title brought to mind the BBC TV comedy program of some years ago, entitled:

    "No, this is this. Goodbye is Goodbye.

  6. fiddler said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    Opal's gonna be a pistol.

  7. Haamu said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    Professor, one of the nice aspects of this blogging thing is that you don't need to put up with a lack of appropriate terminology. You can ask your readers to make something up, vote on the best suggestion, and then popularize the result.

    "Sentence fragments" too negative? Okay, how about "externally coordinated sentences" or "contextually connected sentences"? The actual linguists here can come up with something better, I'm sure.

  8. Elizabeth Zwicky said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 12:41 am

    I can attest that Opal is asserting that "and" does not begin a sentence, regardless of its intonation. (Or, in fact, of a 20 second gap between it and the previous clause, accompanied by a change of topic.)

    As for being a pistol, I have to report that this morning after asking my opinion on which of three dresses she should wear, she rejected it because "That green, it's going to piss my head off. It will. It will piss it right off." I resisted the temptation to try to correct her usage.

  9. dr pepper said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 3:09 am

    How about "detached clause"?

  10. Richard Wein said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 6:06 am

    I'm not sure that Opal has been given the NIC rule (though she may have been). Perhaps she is not so much objecting to the beginning of a sentence with "and" as to the unwarranted dissection of what she sees as being a single sentence.

  11. Levi Montgomery said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 7:11 am

    I submit that the "sentence fragment" beginning with "And if…" is not a fragment at all, but is the firs part of a sentence accidentally broken by a misplaced upper-case S in "She says…"

  12. Ellen said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    Levi: Your theory would put a question mark in the middle of a sentence. As I read it, "And if" starts a question, ending with the question mark, and "She says" starts the answer.

  13. empty said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    How do new expressions like "it's going to piss my head off" enter the language? It has to start somewhere. Opal strikes me as having the originality and force of character to be a trend-setter.

  14. Andrew said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

    It seems to me that Opal is using a perfectly reasonable rule of thumb. It is a common fucntion of 'and' to link two clauses into a sentence. Hence 'I got up this morning. I had breakfast.' is two sentences, while 'I got up this morning and I had breakfast.' is one.

    This does not imply that 'I got up this morning. And I had breakfast.' is ungrammatical. But it is something someone might say for special effect, perhaps if they do not normally have breakfast, so want to draw attention to it. The fact that this is possible does not stop 'and' between two clauses often being a sign that a single sentence is intended.

  15. ginny said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    This is my first comment, and my first time viewing the site. It was an NPR story by Geoff Nunberg that piqued my curiosity, and I've been reading posts for the last hour. It is a delight to find and read so many bright people so excited about, and devoted to language. I have a lot to learn about it and now have found several hundred teachers. Great!

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