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Bend the Rules to Teach the Rules

Young writers sometimes assume that any thought that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period passes as a complete sentence.

But too often the group of words is missing something essential: a subject, a verb, and/or a complete thought. The result is a fragment and an incomplete sentence.

Fragment: Performing his original songs at the talent show.
Corrected: Akira performed his original songs at the talent show.

Sentence fragments can confuse readers, disrupt the flow of writing, and cause students to lose points on formal essays and standardized tests.

When we surveyed teachers about grammar issues that pop up regularly in their students’ writing, nearly 70 percent of respondents identified sentence fragments as a common problem.

Given the trouble with fragments, the solution we’re about to propose may seem counterintuitive, perhaps, even sacrilegious. But here it goes. . . .

Teach students about intentional sentence fragments.

Why teach something students should avoid?

We know, we know: Students need to learn the rules before they break them. But reading, discussing, and modeling intentional fragments can grow students’ awareness of sentence rules and structure. And this awareness will help them avoid using fragments unintentionally.

Intentional fragments (single words or phrases set off as sentences) regularly appear in popular fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Authors use them for many purposes: to emphasize ideas, create rhythm, present realistic dialogue, and convey panic or surprise.

How can I introduce intentional fragments?

Use this sentence-study activity, which involves close reading and inquiry. By studying authentic examples, students will see why writers occasionally use fragments, what effects they have, and when to avoid them altogether.

Read the blog post that inspired this activity, written by a brilliant teacher—Matthew M. Johnson.

Eyes on Sentence Fragments

Teacher Support

Consider this support for the activity.



Learning Objectives

  • Build awareness of sentence rules and structure.
  • Define and understand sentence fragments.
  • Understand both the pitfalls and appropriate uses of fragments.

Teaching Tips

  • Give some background information about the pitfalls of fragments before jumping into the activity. 
    • In almost all situations, complete sentences are best.
    • Students should avoid fragments—intentional or unintentional—in assessments and formal essays.
    • Fragments cause choppy writing.
    • If an intentional fragment sounds odd when it is read out loud, the student should replace it with a complete sentence.
  • Show and discuss examples of intentional fragments. Try to show them in the context of a larger piece of writing. 
  • Keep an eye out for intentional fragments when you read for pleasure. Save the examples for future discussions.
  • Integrate the lesson on intentional fragments into a larger study of sentence fragments. Give students additional practice with recognizing and correcting fragments. Consider these resources for further support:

Teacher Support:

Click to find out more about this resource.

Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.