October 5th, 2012 .

Fear of my grammar teacher

Max Morden

Recently I was asked what I thought of a letter from the Moderator of the United Church, the Right Reverend Gary Paterson.

The letter to United Church members, posted on the Church website, began with an incomplete sentence: “Already September, and all the busyness that comes with the changing of seasons.”

An incomplete sentence, also known as a sentence fragment, is a group of words without a subject or verb. Here’s an example: “Dripping with sarcasm, which is unusual for the prime minister.”

A group of words with a subject and verb may still be a sentence fragment if the subject and verb are contained in a subordinate clause. For example, “Although the prime minister is seldom sarcastic” is a subordinate clause, unable to stand on its own as a complete thought.

Changing the first line of Rev. Paterson’s letter from a sentence fragment into a sentence requires a slight revision, as in:  “September is here again, with all the busyness that comes with the changing of seasons.”

But is it really necessary to rewrite the sentence? My grade six grammar teacher, who terrified me, would probably say “yes”. But there are times when the use of a sentence fragment is appropriate. In his letter, Rev. Paterson begins this way to set a chatty tone and emphasize the changing of the seasons. I think it’s a good start to the rest of the letter, which in my mind is friendly, personal, and well written.

A skilled writer will sometimes use sentence fragments for a number of reasons: for emphasis, to answer a question, to set a tone, or to mark a change. You often see it in marketing.

In the hands of an unskilled writer, though, sentence fragments can be jarring and ungrammatical. For myself, I try to avoid them. I guess I’m still haunted by the spectre of my Grade six grammar teacher. I tend to play it safe.


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