PHONE Etiquette

By Ruth Oji

WRITING is a thing. It demands  precision and attention to details for you to get it right. Many people hold back from writing because they feel that they always make mistakes in connection with sentence construction, which is what writing is largely about.

In this article and in more to follow, I start up a series on correcting sentence faults. Make your notes, learn, practice, and improve your writing. Let us begin by explaining what sentence errors are. In a nutshell, they are the mistakes that writers make most frequently in constructing sentences.

Those who attend my classes may recall that I often say to them that writing is a conscious activity that must not be toyed with.  If you must write to communicate your ideas, you must be intentional about your vocabulary, structure, and general expression. Writing is like engaging in construction; a measure of laying out and building is involved in both activities.

If you must undertake a construction project and bring it to its successful completion, you must be intentional at all stages of the work. So it is with writing.  Writing is an intentional activity that must be devoid of mistakes. People may not die or get injured when you do not build (write) right – as is the case of a construction project – but you can imagine the colossal damage that might happen when your writing is fraught with avoidable errors.

One sentence error I will explicate in this article is ‘sentence fragment’. As the expression implies, the sentence is fragmented. Thus, a sentence fragment is a group of words that should be part of a sentence but has been cut off and punctuated as though it were a complete sentence in itself. To be considered herein are phrases as fragments, clauses as fragments, and other kinds of fragments. Our focus this week will be limited to phrases as fragments. Other types will follow in weeks to come.

Phrases as fragments

There are different types of phrases that serve different purposes – the verbal phrases (participles, gerunds and infinitives), the prepositional phrase, and the appositive phrase – all will be explained in a future post. The important thing to note about phrases is that they do not have a subject and verb combination and as such cannot stand by themselves. Let us take the following expressions as examples: We saw the Akintunji’s new house. A mansion at Banana Island.

Do you notice that the second group of words is a fragment because on its own it does not convey complete meaning? Hence, they should be joined to the previous sentence. Given that the second expression is a description of the house, it should be added as an appositive – simply put a comma, instead of a full stop before adding them. This should then give us: We saw the Akintunji’s new house, a mansion at Banana Island. (This is the correct way to write the sentence).

Let us consider a few more examples.

The community leaders found a stolen vehicle. Parked close to the community school. (Wrong)

The community leaders found a stolen vehicle parked close to the community school. (Right)

Little children happily walked to school. Flaunting their new school bags. (Wrong)

Little children happily walked to school, flaunting their new school bags. (Right)

What is your observation regarding the two examples just cited? Did you notice that the first one had no comma while the second had a comma separating the second expression from the first? Why is that? I will try to explain as simply as I can. 

Some fragments have a descriptive purpose. That is, they tell you more about something or someone in the initial or later part of the sentence. Take as an example the first one. The fragment ‘parked close to the community school’ is a fragment that we call ‘participial phrase’ fragment – because it has a descriptive function (it describes the vehicle).

Because what the fragment describes or modifies is the ‘vehicle’, we ought to place the fragment just next to the word without separating it with a comma. When we write in this way in English, we understand it to mean that the fragment is a restrictive phrase that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. 

Conversely, the second phrase which is fragmented is a non-restrictive participial phrase and as such is not too relevant to the meaning of the sentence. When we put a comma before a phrase in this way, it suggests that we can do without that bit of information and the sentence would still convey the complete thought.

So, take a look again at our second example. Did you notice that we placed a comma before the participial phrase which was initially fragmented – ‘flaunting their new school bags’? Now, that is because we can take that part out and the sentence would have its main point conveyed. Because the phrase is simply additional information and modifies, not school but children, there is therefore a need to put the comma there before the phrase.

What I mean is that the phrase ‘flaunting their new school bags’ modifies or describes the little children (which is at the beginning of the sentence), so we have to add a comma before the phrase to make the sentence right. That way we avoid a fragmented sentence when we use a full stop. Now, see if you can attempt the following exercises, and look out for the answers in next week’s post.

Exercise 1.  If one of the following items contains a fragment, rewrite the item, attaching the fragment to the complete sentence. Change capitalisation and punctuation where necessary. If the item contains no fragment, write “C”. Example: The long, wide halls of the old secondary school building were quite shaky. On windy days in particular.

Answer: The long, wide halls of the old secondary school building were quite shaky, on windy days in particular.

Example: The choirmaster dropped his hymn book and hurried out to call his choristers. To get them to be there on time was urgent. Answer: C

Now attempt the following: 1. Chukwudi sat at his desk for at least two hours. Writing that note of apology was one of the hardest things he ever had to do.

2. Mariam failed to see the stop sign. Either because of the driving rain or because of her fogged-up windscreen. 

•Dr. Oji is a Senior Lecturer of English at the Institute of Humanities, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos

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