Are fragments acceptable in professional writing? Surely not.

I recently attended a Professional Speechwriters Association writing workshop called “How to write EVERYTHING.” (It was a busy day.) We were discussing ways to introduce shorter sentences into our writing, and the host said that “you can absolutely use sentence fragments in your writing.”

Huh?

I frantically looked around the room. Isn’t anyone going to say anything? This is ludicrous! What makes this guy the authority on acceptable sentences? Looks like he doesn’t understand “EVERYTHING” about writing, after all. Fragments in business writing—sheesh! Can you imagine? Ha!

Once I stopped sweating, a scary thought started nagging at me, slowly becoming more pronounced: What if? What if people are doing this? What if reputable writers are writing fragments that reputable magazines, newspapers, and journals are publishing?

I’m not one to blindly adhere to outdated writing rules. If the times truly are a-changin’, count me in! But my inner skeptic—clinging to the words of teachers past—was loudly harrumphing.

Thus, I started making my way through the most recent McKinsey Quarterly, hunting for fragments. Not that McKinsey has the final say on all things, but it is regarded by the business community as an exemplary publication—not only for the quality of the ideas but also for the quality of the writing and design (see the bios of many of the people who work here at Leff). I turned to it to support my position.

Behold: Fragments

I’d just settled in for what was sure to be a long, unproductive journey through the publication when I encountered the following:

“How does CEO behavior stack up against the programmatic M&A model? Fairly well during the initial years of many CEOs, according to our research.”

Wait, is that—can it be—a fragment? I sent the line to my colleague DeQuesha, and she confirmed that I wasn’t losing it. There it was, smack dab in the middle of an article: a fragment.

Most surprising of all, I didn’t hate it here. Following a question, as it is, I think it’s nice and concise and direct.

But it was just one fragment—a fluke.

A few articles later . . .

“We hear about the challenges every day in our conversations with global business leaders: How long can their traditional sources of competitive advantage survive in the face of technological shifts? How will changing consumer and societal expectations affect their business models? What does it mean to be a global company when the benefits of international integration are under intense scrutiny? All good questions.”

There it is again! A pesky fragment following, this time, a series of questions. The quick alternative to this fragment would be something like, “These are all good questions.” But is that really better? Do I get anything more as a reader from the complete sentence than I do the fragment? Does it add information or clarify anything? All good questions. I think the answer is “no.”

I plowed ahead, my interest piqued and my heart racing and Weird Al running through my head, taunting me.

Before long, I was stopped again, this time by a completely new use of fragments.

Growth shifts. Accelerating disruption. A new societal deal. These are powerful forces that demand thoughtful responses and contain the seeds of extraordinary opportunity.”

At first, this construction confused me. Because my brain expects a verb in a sentence, the first time I read it I assumed “shifts” was acting as a verb, not a plural noun. But once I sorted that out, I didn’t hate this use of fragments, as a list, either.

Here is this example rewritten in full-sentence form:

Growth shifts, accelerating disruption, a new societal deal—these are powerful forces that demand thoughtful responses and contain the seeds of extraordinary opportunity.

Reading it this way proved that my hang-up was not the fragment, rather the use of “shifts.” Like before, I think both constructions achieve the same goal.

The final fragment I found came in an article’s subtitle:

“What does automation mean for G&A and the back office?” the title asked. The subtitle answered: A lot. By incorporating available technologies, redeploying employees, and reimagining processes, companies can improve their performance and reduce their costs dramatically.”[1]

Like the other question-and-answer examples, I absolutely think this use works. In fact, I think it’s clever.

What do we do?

Well, I can tell you what I did. I turned to my trusty Chicago Manual of Style. While it doesn’t have an official entry on the use of fragments, it does share its position in one Q&A when asked if “because” can start a sentence. Warning: you might not like what you’re about to read.

Sticklers object to the use of because because it sometimes introduces a sentence fragment, and they think that sentence fragments are not allowed in writing. But they are wrong—sentence fragments are found in the very best of classic English prose. Because they work.

I was downright rattled! But CMS offers a definitive answer.[2] Fragments are acceptable, it says.

As with all writing techniques, you certainly don’t want to overuse fragments. But if you want to use them here and there, you won’t be the first—and you have resources to show you’re in the right.

And that’s as close to an endorsement as I can get without breaking a sweat again.

[1] Alexander Edlich, Allison Watson, and Rob Whiteman, “What does automation mean for G&A and the back office?” McKinsey Quarterly, no. 2 (2017), 97–101.

[2] For AP Stylebook folks, it takes a similar stance in a Q&A, which you can find by searching the site for “fragment” if you have a subscription.

8 Responses to “Are fragments acceptable in professional writing? Surely not.”

  1. Kathy Willhoite May 23, 2017 at 6:31 pm #

    Nice piece, Annie. I considered attending that workshop. Quality overall?
    Kathy

    • Annie Mullowney
      Annie Mullowney May 24, 2017 at 9:37 am #

      Thanks, Kathy! Brittany and I each attended a PSA workshop recently and really enjoyed the day. Some of the material was a welcome review (I think we all get in ruts and could use a refresher now and then), and some, like this bit about fragments, was very new to me.

  2. David Bixby May 24, 2017 at 7:25 am #

    I’m glad this had a happy ending, after reading at the end of the second paragraph:

    “Fragments in business writing—sheesh!”

    • Annie Mullowney
      Annie Mullowney May 25, 2017 at 10:03 am #

      I’m still trying to decide if it actually is a happy ending, Dave.

  3. Shelley Newby May 24, 2017 at 7:31 pm #

    This is a delightful and clever piece, Annie! I really enjoyed reading it. I love the freedom of expression using fragments invites! An added note, your beloved teacher, Dr. Saffire, uses fragments in her writing! I’m going to share your blog with her!

    • Annie Mullowney
      Annie Mullowney May 25, 2017 at 9:37 am #

      Always glad to be in the company of Dr. Saffire! Thanks, Shelley!

  4. Jeff Herrington May 25, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    Liked this a lot. Why? Just because.

    • Annie Mullowney
      Annie Mullowney May 25, 2017 at 9:35 am #

      It was a transformative day, Jeff! I’m very glad I was there.

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