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Im editing a book for someone and he has a lot of incomplete sentences such as:

While his father talked to all the beautiful women.

I was taught that this is incorrect. It should read something like

During this time his father talked to all the beautiful women.

Any thoughts? It seems that the rules have loosened a bit when it comes to this. Thanks!

closed as too broad by AmE speaker, Lawrence, Edwin Ashworth, Bread, Nigel J May 17 '18 at 1:40

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  • any chances that full stop would have been placed mistakenly (in the place of coma) ? It would be better if you include couple of sentences more. (few of before this sentence and few of after this sentence) – Amit May 14 '18 at 3:29
  • After the winter finished, Eric had to sit on the beach on weekends and attempt school work. While his father talked to all the beautiful women. When Eric returned to Brussels for summer vacation he told his mum he couldn’t go back. – Maureen May 14 '18 at 3:49
  • He has written a lot of the book this way. With these incomplete sentences. I'm returning to editing after many years out away from it. So I'm wondering if there might be a change here and is this now an acceptable way to write? – Maureen May 14 '18 at 3:50
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    As Xanne's answer indicates, this is a matter of writing style, not a matter of grammatical correctness per se. That is, even if it is grammatically incorrect, it paints a mood of annoyance not captured by your alternative phrasing. If you'd like to pursue this more, look up the Writing community. – Lawrence May 14 '18 at 5:56
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    It's not good in academic/business writing, but it may be the individual's "style" for writing fiction and other informal works. In the context quoted in the second comment I would not object to it. – Hot Licks May 14 '18 at 22:31
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It's a sentence fragment and, technically, ungrammatical.

However, sentence fragments can still be an arguably acceptable form of stylistic writing: It was simply the best thing in the world. The. Best. (A poor example of good usage, I grant you.)

In your example, the use of a separate "sentence" gives it the same pacing as a long pause in speech, putting emphasis on the fragment and giving it a particular emotional tenor. This is a type of pause that wouldn't be the same with other formatting.

A more explicit example of this (that exaggerates the pacing) could be:

After the winter finished, Eric had to sit on the beach on weekends and attempt school work. While his father talked to all the beautiful women. While he had to look at a book.

Rephrasing to avoid the sentence fragment, while correcting the grammar, would change the pacing and emphasis.

Looking at what you are actually editing, it doesn't appear to me that the fragment is an intentional literary device, but it's best to ask the author—at least with respect to one of the several instances you're seeing. Is it a deliberately used style or an unintentional mistake? Before just changing it to make it grammatical, you should find out what the intent was.

If the author does say it was intentional, and wants to keep it, then you could ask at the Writing site if there are ways of making it seem more deliberate and appropriate.

  • Both Julian Barnes (in The Only Story) and Michael Ondaatje (in Warlight) use some sentence fragments. But they're both Man Booker Prize winners. They can fragment anything they want. I agree with you, though, that consulting with the author is the thing to do. – Xanne May 14 '18 at 6:42
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    Judicious use of sentence fragments / substitutes is surely not considered ungrammatical nowadays. 'Hello' and 'On the table' cannot be considered unacceptable per se. Requirements of register do inform appropriate choice, of course. – Edwin Ashworth May 14 '18 at 6:54
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    Strangely, after writing this answer, I returned to a book I'm in the middle of reading and discovered a frequent use of sentence fragments in its narrative. They all make sense within the context of the passages in which they're placed. Ungrammatical does not necessarily mean unwarranted. – Jason Bassford May 14 '18 at 6:57
  • And the classic comeback for the teacher--who worries that the student knows that JB or MO or whoever violated the standard rules--is to write on the students paper " Who do you think you are anyway, Julian Barnes? – Xanne May 14 '18 at 7:47
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There has been no change in the use of while as a conjunction. This is clearly a sentence fragment. You want to lower-case the word and get rid of the period or convert it to a comma.

I would hesitate, as an editor, to convert the fragment to a separate sentence because it does, if subtly, change the author's meaning. Eric does, after all, have to sit on the beach because his father is busy talking to women.

If it is indeed the case that this kind of fragment is typical, changing the punctuation--that's what the author has a problem with, after all--should not be too hard, and not too hard to explain.

However, I have the perception, as one who has done editing periodically over several decades, that rules on commas (which would be at issue here) are more flexible than they used to be. I may be wrong about this; the current Chicago Manual of Style might be a good guide. My recollection on punctuation is that it can be "tighter" (more commas) or looser (fewer); in general we're using fewer commas than we used to use. But consistency in the style you choose is still desirable. My style choice would be to leave the comma out.

  • Thanks so much for this feedback. I prefer shorter sentences as I think they are easier to read but in this instance I think it should read: 'After the winter finished, Eric had to sit on the beach on weekends and attempt school work while his father talked to all the beautiful women.' – Maureen May 14 '18 at 5:22
  • I agree with you. Thanks so much. He has written sentence fragments like this the whole way through the book. So I will have to add it to the previous sentence with or without a comma depending on the sentence. Or I will need to add extra words to make the sentence a complete sentence. Thanks very much. – Maureen May 14 '18 at 5:24
  • @Xanne: I agree, many authors use short sentences as a style. If one feeds examples of Raymond Chandler into the Word grammar checker, it returns a great number of 'fragment - consider revising' tags. Thank goodness he didn't have Microsoft to help him. – Qube May 14 '18 at 7:28
  • In the context quoted there is nothing wrong with the sentence as it stands. And I think it reads better than the several "improvements" I've seen proposed. – Hot Licks May 14 '18 at 22:35

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