Free Grammar Help—Sentences— Sentence Faults
The two most common sentence faults are Run-on Sentences and Sentence Fragments. Another common fault is the misplaced modifier.
Run-on sentences. These result from trying to pack too much into your sentence. This is easy to do when you are writing and the ideas are flowing. That's one reason why you always need to take time to carefully proofread and edit your work. Click here for: How to fix run-on sentences.
Sentence fragments. This is when the sentence lacks some essential element, usually the subject or verb. The most common sentence fragment occurs when the subject is a phrase which includes a verb, but there's actually no main verb in the sentence. If your teacher marked a sentence as a sentence fragment, read it over very carefully to determine that it actually has a subject and a verb. Make sure that there is an action in the sentence, not that the subject and verb are actually part of an introductory phrase. If you are still not sure, ask an editor to look at it through our grammar question page. The most common sentence fragments I see in my editing work is when someone had an idea that should have been joined onto the previous sentence. Usually these sentence fragments begin like this: "Which..." Sentences should not begin with "which". The fix is easy: change the preceding period to a comma, and convert the sentence fragment into a non-restrictive clause, which is an acceptable grammatical constructions.
Run-on sentences can be caused by a few errors. The above example of a run-on sentence could actually be fixed and turned into a long compound-complex sentence with the correct application of punctation. It's not recommended. Many run-on sentences are much shorter.
Fused sentences are when two parts of the sentence are joined together without benefit of punctuation: "Joe ordered pizza his pizza was cold."
Comma splices are when the write used a comma to join two parts that are not supposed to be joined. For example: "Joe ordered pizza, his pizza was cold." Here are two halves of a sentence that are connected, but not grammatically. We can fix a comma splice in a couple of ways.
- Make it two complete sentences with a period and a capital letter. "Joe ordered pizza. His pizza was cold."
- Connect it with a semicolon: "Joe ordered pizza; his pizza was cold." This is called "parallel structure."
- Connect the two halves with the comma and a joining word (conjunction: "Joe ordered pizza, but his pizza was cold." This makes the second part of the sentence subordinate to the first part. It is called a "subordinate clause."
- Use a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb: "Joe ordered pizza; however, his pizza was cold."
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Misplaced modifiers are generally adverbial phrases that begin a sentence. The writer (and often the reader) knows what the phrase refers to, but the sentence doesn't actually say that. Here's an example: Hoping to score a goal, I watched the hockey player in his breakaway. Obviously I'm the one who is hoping, and the hockey player is the one who is possibly going to score a goal. We can fix this by clarifying who is hoping: Hoping he will score a goal, I watched the hockey player in the breakaway. Or, we could fix this by clarifying the main clause: Hoping to score a goal, the hockey player skated in a breakaway. This problem is related to the hopefully vs I hope problem discussed on the adverbs page.
How to write clearly
If you are having trouble with your writing, start by making sure your sentences contain a subject, verb and object. Don't make your sentences too complicated. Go through your writing one sentence at a time and make sure each sentence is grammatically correct. Pay particular attention to the possibility of a fused sentence or a comma splice as described above. Think carefully about opening clauses. They could be misplaced modifiers. In my editing work, I commonly find these. Often I find them in my second read through after I've already corrected the biggest errors. The key to writing well is to look at each sentence individually and ensure that it is a proper sentence.