I can use sentence fragments?
In Bobby Kennedy’s famous speech about his assassinated brother, President John F. Kennedy, a small section goes like this:
“Even beyond that, his idea really was that this country, that this world, should be a better place when we turned it over to the next generation than when we inherited it from the last generation. That is why – with all of the other efforts that he made – the Test Ban Treaty, which was done with Averell Harriman, was so important to him.
And that’s why he made such an effort and was committed to the young people not only of the United States but the young people of the world. And in all of these efforts you were there, all of you. When there were difficulties, you sustained him.”
You might notice that the second paragraph is made up of two, yes two, fragments. Not a single complete sentence is to be seen ~gasp~. Does that mean the Attorney General and brother of a President of the United States of America didn’t understand the rules of grammar? No! It means just the opposite: he understood exactly what the rules of grammar were. And he knew how and when to break those rules.
Those sentences leave room for him to pause before each ‘and’ in order to let you think for a moment about what he just said. Then he ties the next thought in closely by using the ‘and’ at the start.
When you can use sentence fragments
Fragments are just like any other kind of speech eccentricity. You not only use them for a particular effect, but you also use them at a particular time. In other words, you can usually use fragments on purpose during the following situations, just to name a few:
- Morale builders
- Birthday greetings
- Emails containing info that’s not business related
- Personal documents like blog entries and notes
- Lists such as bulleted lists
When you can’t use sentence fragments
Well, to be completely correct, you can use fragments in these situations, but they will likely be frowned upon. Again, these are just a few of the possible situations:
- Business letters and emails to people you don’t know
- Official company documents like policies and procedures
- Newspaper articles and press releases
What’s the difference?
The ‘when you can’ vs. ‘when you can’t’ is kind of like verbal communication. You might say “You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie” at a party with your friends, but you probably wouldn’t say that in a staff meeting. You’d be more likely to say, “I definitely agree with you.”
A good rule of thumb is to think about whether some company somewhere might require that kind of document to be reviewed by an editor. If so, you probably don’t want to use sentence fragments. Would someone ever run your emails through an editor? Maybe if they are going to a client or supplier outside the company, but probably not. On the other hand, policies and procedures almost always go through several editing cycles.
So use that as a guideline, but remember, rules are often made to be broken. As long as you understand the rule to begin with!