ACT Grammar – Sentence Fragments (Part 1)

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Grammar questions account for up to 65% of ACT English. If you’re not a grammar geek, that may sound like bad news. But, here’s the thing – the ACT tests a small handful of grammar rules over and over, in very predictable ways. Thus, you don’t need to become a grammar expert to crush it. To win ACT English, just follow these three steps:

Step 1) Learn the small handful of grammar rules that will be tested on the ACT (very likely, you already know at least a few).

Step 2) Learn how to spot those rules when they’re being tested in an ACT English question.

Step 3) Win!

So, let’s get on with step 1…

In this post, the ACT grammar rule we’re going to look at is:

No Fragments Allowed.

In the land of ACT English, fragments (also known as incomplete sentences) are against the law, and you’ve been appointed deputy. If a fragment appears on the test, the “No Fragments Allowed” rule is violated. Failing to apprehend and cite such violators makes the brass, i.e., the ACT, very angry.

So – exactly what is a sentence fragment? Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll start by giving you a simple example of one type of fragment that shows up on the ACT:

the car that crashed

Does that sound like a complete sentence to you? (hint: notice the lower case t and lack of a period). Hopefully not, because it isn’t. Here’s why ~

A complete sentence must have:

  • a subject (always a noun, like car, or pronoun, like it)

and

  •  a predicate (an action the subject does, like careened into a wall, or a state the subject is in, like is wrecked.)

The car that crashed isn’t a complete sentence because, though it has a noun (car), it doesn’t have a predicate. The car doesn’t do anything, nor is it said to be in a state. (yeah that’s right, I just used the word “nor”…deal with it!)

But what about the verb crashed? In the car that crashed, doesn’t crashed count as a predicate, since it’s a verb?

No.

Here’s why ~

You see the word that before crashed? It turns the verb crashed into an adjective. In fact, in our example, the whole clause, that crashed, is just an adjective, even though it contains a verb.

Yep – you should think of the clause that crashed as an adjective to describe the car. In fact, in grammar circles, clauses such as that crashed are referred to as adjective clauses.

(In case you forgot, adjectives are words, phrases, or clauses that describe nouns. Words like tallprettyhumongous, and filthy are adjectives. So are phrases such as taller than a 7-foot, bipedal snake and clauses like who is as filthy as Aunt Susan.)

Anyhoo, back to the whole fragment thing. Here’s another way of looking at it:

Grammatically speaking, the car that crashed = the crashed car.

In both cases, all we have is a noun (the car) and an adjective (that crashed/crashed). A noun and adjective don’t make a complete sentence. As we’ve said, to form a complete sentence, we need a subject and a predicate.

So, there you have it: a grammatical explanation of why the car that crashed is an incomplete sentence, a fragment.

Here are some more examples of fragments. They have the same grammatical structure as the car that crashed:

the toast that flew

a barn which grew

three ladies who knew

some guys that glue

(can’t help it — I’m naturally poetic)

We can transform the above sentence fragments into bona fide, complete sentences by adding predicates, e.g.,

The toast that flew hit the wall.

A barn which grew is tall.

Three ladies who knew told all.

Some guys that glue are feeling a bit dizzy at the moment.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering what’s up with the words that, which, and who – they’re officially called relative pronouns. But let’s call them adjective pronouns instead. For us, referring to them as adjective pronouns makes more sense, since they begin adjective clauses.)

All Sounds Super Simple, Right? Ha. Just You Wait.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Duh! Thanks for the totally obvious grammar lesson, Captain Obvious!”

First of all, words hurt. Second of all, trust me – there’s a method to my madness.

You see, grasshoppers, you must understand the basics very well because the ACT takes very simple concepts such as the one I just laid out and makes them much more difficult. Primarily, the ACT does this by making sentences long and convoluted.

If you want to curb stomp ACT English, you need to nail both step 1 (know which rules will be tested) and step 2 (know when one of the rules is being tested). Step 2 calls for quickly spotting violations of ACT grammar rules in their natural habitat, i.e., hidden among the foliage of long, complex sentences. This, in turn, requires knowing the basic forms of ACT grammar rules inside-out, sideways, and backward. The more familiarity you gain with ACT grammar rules in their basic forms, the more violations will stick out like sore thumbs on the ACT, regardless of how much the test writers try to disguise them. 

So that’s what I’ve done in this lesson: shown you the basic form of one type of fragment that frequently shows up on ACT English. In part 2, I’ll take it to the next level by giving you examples of how the ACT camouflages these types of fragments (that is, by nesting them in a bunch of distracting verbiage).

Until then, comrades!

~ David

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