By Karen Payton Holt.
When I posted my first piece of prose I was told by a reviewer that, although the story content deserved a ‘5 star’ rating, I didn’t know what a sentence was.
I bristled, got a little offended, and then realized she was right. Okay, let’s clarify, I knew the definition of what constitutes a ‘sentence’: An independent clause which contains a ‘subject’ and a ‘verb’ and expresses a complete thought, equals a sentence.
Easy! And yet, in our enthusiasm, we often forget these rules.
Sentences can be as short as two words. For example: Birds fly. Rain fell. The man ran. (Yes, I know the last one contains three words, but you get my point. Sentences can be very short.)
Usually, the object comes first. Another word you may come across is ‘predicate’
The ‘predicate’ is everything in a sentence excluding the subject: Birds fly. He ran through the burning building.
But, what of ‘comma splices’/run on sentences, conjunctions/conjunctive adverbs and sentence fragments? This is where a sentence can go awry.
This is my Idiots’ Guide to those three pitfalls. You won’t always spot them in your own writing, but, if you at least know what they are then when a reviewer points them out, you’ll know what they mean.
1/ Comma Splices/Run On Sentences = Two independent clauses joined by a comma.
Today was Saturday, I went to the grocery store.
This is incorrect. There are three ways I can think of to make this grammatically correct.
a/ Today was Saturday. I went to the grocery store. = Replace the comma with a period.
b/ Today was Saturday, SO I went to the grocery store. = Add a ‘conjunction’, in this case ‘SO’. The comma always remains in place.
c/ BECAUSE Today was Saturday, I went to the grocery store. = Add a ‘modifier’, in this case ‘BECAUSE’
While we’re here, let’s just talk about ‘conjunctions’.
The way I remember the simple, most common conjunctions is by recalling the word ‘FANBOYS’ (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
A conjunctive adverb (such as ‘however’, ‘otherwise’, ‘meanwhile’, ‘finally’) expresses a shift between two topics and is a common cause for run on sentence.
a/ I had a bad headache, therefore, I could not go to the movies.
b/ Today was Sunday, however, I went to the grocery store.
When using conjunctive adverbs, the rule is to precede it with a semicolon or a period.
a/ I had a bad headache; therefore, I could not go to the movies.
b/ Today was Sunday. However, I went to the grocery store.
Personally, I consider it smoother to have the ‘transitional’ conjunction at the beginning of a sentence, where possible.
a/ BECAUSE I had a bad headache, I could not go to the movies.
b/ EVEN THOUGH today was Sunday, I went to the grocery store.
3/ Sentence Fragments. = A group of words which fail to be a sentence because it does not contain one independent clause (subject/verb). They are often wrongly punctuated ‘subordinate clauses’.
The most common reason for sentence fragments, in my view, is a misplaced period. Humans have a tendency to write as they think, and we do not think in complete sentences. Some writers litter their work in periods, and have lists of fragments as a ‘style’ choice. This is their own decision, and comes under the category of ‘rules are there to be broken’. This is your right as a creative writer to take those decisions and if you are Indie publishing, then you have autonomy.
For most of us, when learning your craft, it is wise to acknowledge that the rules of grammar do apply. Without a subject, verb, and complete thought, you do not have a sentence.
Sentence fragments are often easy to fix.
a/ I had a headache and couldn’t go to the dance. Which is why I cried.
Here, you have two options: First, remove the period and replace with a comma.
I had a headache and couldn’t go to the dance, which is why I cried.
Second, change the subordinate element of the clause and make it a sentence.
I had a headache and couldn’t go to the dance. I cried.
b/ Running until his lungs burned. Seeing an open door, the man entered the house.
Here, the first sentence is missing a ‘subject’. It reads as an introductory element. Replacing the period with a comma would give you two ‘subordinate’ clauses, and a ‘MAIN’ clause. Therefore, it becomes a correct sentence.
Running until his lungs burned, seeing an open door, the man entered the house.
Final Note: I wanted to talk about another common structural error. In some cases, you can have two perfectly formed sentences, but losing sight of your ‘subject’ alters the fundamental meaning.
a/ The man walked up the stairs. Frowning, his hand closed around the door handle.
The second independent clause is telling us that ‘his hand’ is frowning.
The writer has to rewrite it, and one option is to make it one sentence. Hence it becomes, ‘The man walked up the stairs, frowning as his hand closed around the door handle.’.
Before editing a passage of my own prose, I found two sentences fragments in my own work. I offer these as more complicated examples of fragments, and how they can hide.
1/ As if noticing it for the first time, his fingertips ran through my short, rough cut hair. This is incorrect because the ‘subject’ is his fingertips, and fingertips cannot ‘notice something’.
As if noticing it for the first time, HE RAN HIS fingertips ran through my short, rough cut hair. Now, the subject is ‘HE’ and the sentence is correct.
2/ Taking my hand, he looked down. Turning it over and studying the bruises and straight edged cuts in my calloused skin, understanding dawned. The second sentence is a fragment because it has no ‘subject’. WHO is turning and studying the bruises?
How can I fix this? I chose this option: Taking my hand in his, he looked down and turnED it over. He studIED the bruises and straight edged cuts in my calloused skin, AND understanding dawned.
My final piece of advice in looking for sentence fragments is this, reading each sentence element BACKWARDS from end to beginning will reveal where you are missing a ‘subject’ or a ‘verb’.
There are many more questions and problems in ensuring your sentence structure is correct, but I hope my thoughts can help you in fighting the demons. If you can begin to grasp some common rules, then it lays the foundation to the wall of knowledge you need to build, as a writer.