I was taken to task last week for a mistake I apparently made in a recent post. I had written the question So how apply all that theory to our example? to make a transition to a new paragraph, and the objection was raised (I’ll keep the agent unknown with that passive construction) that so much was missing from my sentence, it really wasn’t a sentence at all, but a fragment. So how answer this charge?

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of the difference between a sentence and a fragment. We might remember being taught in our schooldays that a sentence is a group of words expressing a complete thought, a standard definition that was certainly workable as we began our study of language. And no sooner did we learn that a sentence was a complete thought than we learned that a fragment was an incomplete thought—incomplete and therefore unsuccessful, we were told, in carrying our ideas across to a reader. A real thought, then and now, combines a subject with a predicate, and when either of those is missing from a statement, we don’t have a sentence, but a piece of a sentence, a fragment.

A fragment, let me be quick to agree, is always incorrect in a grammar class, and we should certainly err on the side of being fastidiously correct—always writing complete sentences, for example—as we learn or relearn the elements of a subject: the classroom is a kind of laboratory, and the work that goes on there must be regulated until we writers can see for ourselves how language can fire or misfire. But laboratories are controlled environments, not life as we know it and see it and feel it in our daily rounds, and the goal of good writing lies in figuring out how to balance principles and praxis, the requisites of rules with the possibilities of practice. Just where that balance hangs can be found in the answer to the two questions we should pose every time we write: who is my audience and what is my purpose?

These two questions of audience and purpose are essential to have answered before we write because they determine the diction of our composition, the choice of word and structure that is appropriate to the occasion. Certain situations will require the exactitude of the classroom; no lawyer, for example, would draw up a contract with a fragment in it, because incomplete statements tear a hole in the net that a lawyer is sewing together precisely to preclude all possibilities but the ones the client wants. Other situations, though, do not require such careful control, and to be so definite would risk being artificial and off-putting. One rhetorical technique writers use to ensure a more conversational voice is called ellipsis, the omission of words which are otherwise logically or grammatically necessary for a complete thought. We might say that ellipsis typifies the way we speak outside the classroom or courtroom, where control is not quite so urgent and an appeal to join in thinking together more appealing.

And ellipsis was what lay behind the diction of my So how apply all that theory to our example? There are indeed two essentials absent from that statement: both the subject and the auxiliary verb necessary to pose a direct question are missing, and that—strange to say outside the classroom—is here all to the good. For to have written So how do we apply all that theory to our example?, although of course not incorrect, would have changed the manner of the question, the engagement the writer has with a reader, what is traditionally called tone, or one’s attitude and relationship to subject and audience both. To write so elliptically was an effort to hold the topic more lightly than might be the case in classroom or court, where indeed much could strictly be found wanting.

But the laws of grammar and logic have, too, their proper limit. And finding that limit is the key that will open the imprisoning ivory tower.


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