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Knowing Your Phrases, Clauses and Sentence Fragments

Such a sexy, sassy title, right? Who doesn’t want to know more about phrases, clauses and sentence fragments?

How much more fun can we possibly handle?

And here’s another question, this one on a far less sarcastic note: Who cares?

To answer that last question, I’ve got to be honest. The truth is you could very well go your whole life without actually needing to know what’s what here.

There are plenty of respectable job positions you can hold – and hold with honor and an awesome track record of success – without being able to give a proper definition of phrases, clauses and sentence fragments.

You could even probably go your whole life in most writing-related job positions without the ability to expressly define phrases, clauses and sentence fragments.

So, again, why bother?

Most native English speakers can identify a sentence based purely off of intuition. In fact, you intuitively know that you’re reading a sentence – a group of words (often with a subject and a predicate) that come together to express a complete thought. A sentence leaves little to no questions unanswered.

Grammatically speaking, that is. Readers know the who or what, and what that who or what is doing without any additional contextual clues necessary.

For example:

  • I’m walking to the car.

  • She sat on the ground.

  • You’re not listening.

A sentence fragment, on the other hand, leaves something or several somethings out. Such as, perhaps, a noun and a verb:

  • To the car

  • Sat on the ground

  • Not listening

Perhaps if there was other data around those fragments, we could tell what their points are supposed to be. But as they are, they mean not quite nothing, I suppose… but not nearly enough all the same.

The common understanding of a phrase – and I have to throw that qualifier in to appease any grammar Nazis out there – is that it’s a type of short sentence fragment that doesn’t include a subject and verb. For instance:

  • Needing help

  • For the duration

  • Of their stay

A clause, however, can be a type of short sentence or a type of short sentence fragment. It entirely depends on whether it’s independent or dependent. Either way, it includes both a subject and a verb.

Here are some examples of independent clauses:

  • I’m walking.

  • She sat there.

  • You’re not listening.

So… a grammar skeptic might say, they’re sentences. In which case, the grammar skeptic would be correct.

Why we would ever need to differentiate between an independent clause and a “regular” sentence is, frankly, beyond me. I’m assuming there is some explanation. But in all my years as a creative writer, professional writer and professional editor… the only times I’ve ever found it worthwhile to delve that deeply into grammar was when I had to take a test.

So let’s move right along to dependent clauses. These can’t stand on their own despite having a subject and a verb, as in:

  • Since I’m walking

  • Because she sat there

  • Whoever isn’t listening

Dependent clauses often begin with words like although, because, if, since or when. Which is why they need more information after them. They’re automatically indicating that there’s more to the story then a mere subject and verb can convey.

And that’s really the main point of writing that you need to keep in mind: Does it tell the full, most effective, most engaging story it can?

If the answer is yes, then fragment, phrase or clause, you should be just fine.

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