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“This compelled the chancellor to shut down the whole program. Which was an outcome no one really wanted.”

I suspect that what underlies this error is the sense that in spoken English a substantial pause (or even a change of speaker in conversation) might well precede the subordinator. If this suspicion is correct, then the correction most true to the writer’s intention would be to combine the two sentences into one, perhaps with a dash instead of just a comma, rather than to edit the second sentence into independence (here, by substituting “This” for “Which”).

I find this sort of thing lamentably common in student writing lately, and have accordingly felt the need of a term for it. The term I came up with is “continuation fragment”—that is, a continuation of the preceding sentence wrongly punctuated as a separate sentence. Is there, however, a more established or usual term?

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    When I was at school it was considered unacceptable to start a sentence with words like 'and' and 'because'. I feel sure that words like 'which' when used as relative pronouns fell into that category too. But nowadays it has become quite fashionable to begin sentences with 'and', which cannot be anything but a continuation of the thought left behind in the preceding sentence. So why not begin with 'which'? – WS2 May 23 '14 at 13:59
  • @WS2, have an extra glass of (descriptivist) orange juice tonight. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 '14 at 14:12
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    The use of “and” to begin a sentence is quite a different case, and no mere current fashion, as witness KJV Genesis 1. It does imply continuation of the thought, but the notion that each sentence is or should be a wholly complete and self-contained thought makes nonsense of the very idea of prose; the completeness of a sentence is syntactical. Subordinators (including “because”) may begin sentences (“Because you asked, I came”), but I hold the rule good that in formal (not poetic) usage a subordinate clause needs to be in the same sentence as the clause to which it is subordinate. – Brian Donovan May 23 '14 at 15:17
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    You seem to want to answer your own question. If you wish to adopt and even promote a style where '... a subordinate clause that follows its main clause ... is wrongly punctuated as a separate sentence' that's your choice. But please don't label other choices 'wrong'. Your title here is either ill-defined (as regards register) or disingenuous. Admittedly, fragments are certainly less suitable in an academic register. But the term 'fragment' could have been solicited here without the 'lamentably common' gripe and 'this error' prescription. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 '14 at 16:01
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    'What do you call a subordinate clause that follows its main clause but is wrongly punctuated as a separate sentence?' is wrong. Guess the register here. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 '14 at 18:35
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This is one of the two great bugaboos of grade school English: a Sentence Fragment (the other being its near opposite, the run-on sentence).

The folks at that link argue that, while technically incorrect, it can be useful as a point of emphasis, but

the freedom to exercise this stylistic license depends on the circumstances. Perhaps your final research paper in English Composition is not the place to experiment

The link I posted seemes to suggest that when purposely done, this is a Stylistic Fragment. If you'd prefer a more pejorative term, frankly I'd just stick with "sentence fragment". Anything more elaborate simultaneously elevates the activity and removes it from a term the culprit is likely familiar with from grade school (and as a grown adult, should know better than to do).

  • Sentence fragment is indeed the genus, but I seek a more specific term, for a particular kind of sentence fragment. – Brian Donovan May 23 '14 at 15:23
  • 'Relative clause fragment'. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 '14 at 16:48
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If

This compelled the chancellor to shut down the whole program. Which was an outcome no one really wanted.

is incorrect, surely the reason is that the relative pronoun references the preceding noun group. And a program can't be an outcome.

Sentence fragments, used in moderation, are (as WS2 implies) nowadays not considered ungrammatical per se [Nordquist; ThoughtCo]. In fact, they can add dramatic emphasis.

  • Relative “which” can and often does take a whole clause for its antecedent. As for fragments, yes, as your linked page says, “professional writers” often use them for emphasis; but then literary creations often favor a more colloquial register than suits academic prose, just as Dante and Chaucer favored vernacular languages over Latin. – Brian Donovan May 23 '14 at 15:31
  • 'The chancellor was forced to shut down the whole program, which was something no one really wanted' is, however, obviously ambiguous. If one is going to choose what 'rules' really are / should be 'rules', those that lead to clarity of expression win my vote. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 '14 at 16:20
  • The ambiguity results from substituting “something” for “an outcome.” – Brian Donovan May 23 '14 at 17:50
  • No, the ambiguity results from allowing relative clauses to have other antecedents than the preceding noun group. – Edwin Ashworth May 23 '14 at 22:34
  • "Allowing"? I scarce dared hope the descriptivist veneer were so thin as that. – Brian Donovan May 24 '14 at 2:56

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