by Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh: President, Word Branch Media
We live in a world where ad hyperbole has become acceptable as standard English in some crowds. “New and Improved!” is considered a full and complete sentence. A student once argued passionately that if it were written on a greeting card or in an ad, it must be standard English—after all, professionals write them, don’t they? Sentence fragments, or incomplete sentences, sometimes sound fine to us because we’re used to hearing truncated advertisements.
Speaking as one of those professionals, I’ll tell you why we sometimes use non-standard English. It forms the tone that creates a positive selling/buying atmosphere. For example, if I were to write “No one knows his or her business like we do,” or “The soap is new and improved!” you would focus more on the syntax than the sentiment. For the record, both of these are correct.
So I understand the confusion over sentence fragments. But if you are writing a business proposal, a college paper, or an email to a client, you want to sound professional and polished, and it would be best to avoid fragments as well as other forms of non-standard English.
We’ll start with our old friend, sentence structure. Are you seeing a pattern here? What they taught us in grade school really is the basis for the language. To have a complete sentence, you must have two parts of speech: a subject and a verb. The verb part is easy—an action word. Some words don’t sound all that active like to sleep, to read, to be, but if you can reduce them to their infinitive (a “to be” in front of it), chances are you’ve got a verb. A subject is always a noun, but not all nouns are subjects. A subject is doing the action (verb). So, in the sentence, “The girl is walking the dog,” girl would be the subject since she is doing the walking of the dog (the object).
In most cases, if you can identify the subject and verb in a clause (section of sentence or whole sentence), then you probably don’t have a frag. Notice the word probably. Now, notice this sentence. Do you see a subject? Nope—the sentence isn’t doing the noticing, so there’s no subject. Well, sort of (now this IS a frag!). Therein lay the proverbial exception to the rule. In commands, and it is a command, subjects are understood and don’t have to be written. So, “Run!” wouldn’t be a fragment because it’s actually a command and the “you” is implied.
Phew! Ready for the next one? THAT is a fragment too, so let me rephrase that: Are you ready for the next one? You may remember an English teacher telling you to write in the active voice, and you may have been confused. Aren’t they all active? Active simply means that the subject is non-exssitant or not in the best place. For example, “The vase was broken by John” is passive because John (the subject) is in an awkward place preceded by “was” which is often a tell-tale sign of passive sentence. I know that the vase isn’t the subject because the vase didn’t do the breaking. The active, and better, version is, “John broke the vase.” Sometimes a passive sentence is all right to use when you don’t know the exact subject: “The house was robbed.” The house is the object (it isn’t doing the robbing), so we don’t have a subject. In this instance, where we have an unavoidable passive sentence, the subject is once again implied. We assume a robber robbed the house.
Now that your sentence structure is “New and Improved!” go out there and impress them!
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