Figuring Out Fragments

Overview: 

This lesson allows students to discover that when we speak, we use fragments, and those sentence fragments are perfectly acceptable. In fact, to supply the extra information that one might in writing leads to stilted speech. Additionally, students discover the form of the fragments - they are either phrases or clauses. This lesson should form part of a series of lessons on parts of speech and their phrasal counterparts. The goal here is to focus on the fact that fragments are patterned and systematic, and that we may need to override the natural patterns of speech in formal writing to provide the old information that is not needed in natural conversation.

Grade Level: 
Grades 3-5
Grades 6-8
Grades 9-12
Class Time Needed: 
Under 30 minutes
Lesson Plan: 

Figuring Out Fragments

In conversation, we often leave out the information that is given, old, or understood. To include that information results in conversations that sound stilted, awkward, or overly formal.

Consider the dialogue between speaker A and speaker B.

A. Where are you going?
B. I am going to the store.

A. Do you think Jack should jump off that ledge?
B. I do not think that Jack should jump of that ledge because it is too high.

The replies in B are odd. It would be much more appropriate to reply in something like these B examples:

A. Where are you going?
B. To the store.

A. Do you think Jack should jump off that ledge?
B. No, because it is too high.

Such replies are, of course, perfectly normal and acceptable ways to speak. However, they are sentence fragments. The so-called fragments that we use in speech all the time have structure. It would not sound ok, for example, to reply in the ways shown in these next B examples. (The * indicates that the sentence is ungrammatical.)

A. Where are you going?
B. *Store.

A. Do you think Jack should jump off that ledge?
B. *Might get hurt.

No one would produce examples like these. How do we know this? Which ways are acceptable and why?

After having students play with various good and bad replies in a series of dialogues, they should find that the responses are all either phrases (noun phrase, verb phrase, prepositional phrase, adjective phrase, adverb phrase) or subordinate clauses. Why are single words also sometimes ok? Because when they work, they are also phrases.

Let's go back to the store example.

A. Where are you going?

Possible responses are the store (a noun phrase) or to the store (a prepositional phrase), but not store (a noun).

But try this question and its possible replies:

A. What are you eating?
B. Beets.

This single word works as a reply because it's a noun phrase. How can we tell whether a single word is a noun and a noun phrase (NP)? Well, we already know this, actually, as speakers of a language, but if we want to make that unconscious knowledge into conscious knowledge, here's some evidence.
Consider these examples (adapted from Lobeck and Denham 2013, Navigating English Grammar*)
Dogs make excellent pets.
Lucy has a red umbrella.
One piece of evidence that tells us that dogs and Lucy are full NPs, and not just nouns, is that they occur in the same position that much bigger NPs occur in.
Dogs that you find at shelters make excellent pets.
The woman who moved to Seattle from Miami has a red umbrella.
We could say, based on these data, that the subject (in these examples) of a sentence is either a noun or a (bigger) noun phrase. But this generalization wouldn't capture the fact that we can replace, or substitute both what look like single nouns and full noun phrases with pronouns.
Dogs make excellent pets.
Dogs that you find at shelters make excellent pets.
They make excellent pets.
Lucy has a red umbrella.
The woman who moved to Seattle from Miami has a red umbrella.
She has a red umbrella.
We could say that the pronouns they and she simply replace either N or NP, and be done with it. But, notice that this isn't true; the pronoun they can't replace the noun companions, and the pronoun she can't replace the noun woman.
*They that you find at shelters make excellent pets.
*The she who moved to Seattle from Miami has a red umbrella.
We can explain what's going on here, though, if we say the pronouns replace NPs rather than N. In fact, we can use pronoun replacement as test to determine if we have a noun phrase. That we can replace dogs and Lucy with pronouns is evidence that those words are actually phrases, just like larger NPs.

This lesson should form part of a series of lessons on parts of speech and their phrasal counterparts. The takeaway here, however, is on the fact that fragments are patterned and systematic. We may need to override those natural patterns of speech in formal writing to provide the old information that is not needed in natural conversation.

*Navigating English Grammar: A guide to analyzing real language. by Anne Lobeck and Kristin Denham, Boston: Wiley-Blackwell.