Letters on Literary Devices 9: Incomplete thoug…

To all the incomplete thoughts out there,

A few weeks ago I stumbled across an article (I can’t remember where, when, who is was by, or what the title was) explaining the conventional differences between good ol’ American English and the slightly different, slightly more refined version of that same language on the other side of the Atlantic. No, it wasn’t about how American Standard English (AmSE) is the best and British Standard English (BrSE) is the worst or anything childish like that. Rather, it was about one of the most fascinating, intriguing subjects that man has ever conjured: punctuation.

Yea, that’s right folks. I’m talking periods, commas, and yea, that’s right, even the old semi-colon.

The article went on to explain how differences in usage are often cited as typos by readers educated under the opposing standard language. What? Let me explain with an unnecessarily awkward, convoluted sentence: So Brit readers reading American author’s might see a comma “misplaced” that is actually in a standard location according to AmSE, and an American reader reading a British author might see a comma “misplaced” that is actually in a standard location according to BrSE. Yea (1). I know. Crazy (2).

This got me thinking. Yea (3). I know. Scary (4). When a reader posts a review, what other assumptions does he or she make about typos?

Well, I racked my brain. I thought real hard and then had a milkshake. After that, I went to the gym. I lifted some weights. Did a little cardio. Checked myself out in the mirror when it seemed like no one was watching. Did some more thinking. And drove home.

As I drove home I still had nothing. Honestly, I couldn’t think of much. But that’s when it hit me.  Sentence Fragments (5). The bane of secondary school teachers everywhere (6). Sentence fragments (7).

Despite the threats, brow-beatings, scare tactics of English teachers globally, the sentence fragment has always had a home in literature. I would start to name author’s but that would be silly. Everybody does it. Open a book. Read a few pages. You’ll find one. Guaranteed (8).

Right now, you’re probably thinking this: But why? Why? God, Why!?! Mrs. Bonebreaker told me that if I put another incomplete sentence in my paper she’d snap my pencil in half, and I don’t think she was talking about the one I write with.

Relax (9). It’ll be ok. Deep breaths (10).

Let’s go back to the basics. What’s a sentence? Easy (11). It’s a complete  thought. That’s why they’re so good for writing with. It’s good to have complete thoughts. So, what’s a sentence fragment? An incomplete thought (12). Not too useful in an essay (13). That’s why ol’ Bonebreaker threatened to snap your pencil in half. You were probably writing an essay.

In fiction, however, the incomplete thought can be fairly useful.

The most obvious and probably most common use of incomplete thoughts  is through character dialogue. People don’t always speak with completely formed ideas, so  a lot of author’s imitate this when writing dialogue.

Another common use of the sentence fragment is in the imitation of real human thinking. Think about it. Do you think in complete sentences? Unless you’re really weird, you probably don’t. So a common way to show this, to show a characters thoughts is through the employment of sentence fragments. Most of the time you wouldn’t even notice that you’re looking at fragments. Check out this excerpt from a novel I’m working on:

 

I’m just stuck here. Stuck here watchin’ the old man take a swim every now and then. Stuck here watchin’ ol’ Linda read trashy novels and stroke the armrest of her beach chair. Stuck here bored as hell wantin’ nothin’ else but a chance to meet some chick young enough to take me seriously.

That’s the problem though. All the girls around here are so stuck up and full of shit and three or five years older than me. Sucks being fifteen.

 

For those keeping track at home, that’s four fragments and only three complete sentences. All those “sentences” starting with “stuck” are without subjects. There’s no subject in the sentence starting with “sucks” either.

So, what does this do? Well, it makes the ideas seem less organized. It makes the ideas feel as if each runs into the next. It makes the ideas sound like, well, thoughts.

Now, do all readers know this? No (14). An author takes a chance anytime he or she uses a sentence fragment or any other break from convention when writing fiction. There is the chance that the break with convention won’t be seen as an artistic choice, but rather, will be seen as a clumsy error.

So what? Good question (15). I’ll try to answer it in three sentences. Complete ones (16). Here it goes: with the explosion of self-published authors into the mainstream of fiction, a huge amount of poorly written, poorly edited, poorly proofread novels have hit the market causing readers to notice unheard of quantities of conventional errors in “published” books. This trend has raised awareness to the possibility of typos in independently published fiction. My point is this: although there may be a preponderance of typos in “indie” fiction, not all typos are typos; some writers are better than others; some writers have the literary knowledge to make artistic choices that bend the rules of convention.

In a free society where everyone is empowered to be a critic, a society that encourages all customers, all readers to share opinions on an authors work, there will always be those who critique without requisite knowledge, without adequate understanding. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s much better than the alternative. But it is a fact for which we should be cognizant.

I don’t know about you, but the next time I see a break with convention, I’ll think twice before I assume it’s a mistake.

 

Sincerely,

Eric James-Olson

 

P.S. If you were wondering about all the numbers in parenthesis, the explanation is simple. I was keeping track of all my sentence fragments. No, I didn’t include the fragments from the excerpt.

 

 

 

 

 

About Eric James-Olson

Eric James-Olson writes novels and short stories. Currently, he's working on a coming-of-age novel set in the Panhandle of West-Virginia. Check out the "Novels by Eric James-Olson" tab above for the titles of his other books. In addition to writing, James-Olson is a high school English teacher, an amateur woodworker, and an outdoor enthusiast. He lives with his wife and daughter in West Virginia. View all posts by Eric James-Olson

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