Business Writing Tip #126—Sentence Fragments

sentence fragmentHave you ever run a spell and grammar check on MSWord and seen the message Fragment (consider revising)? Have you wondered what this actually means?

What is a sentence fragment?

The first thing you need to know is how to recognise a sentence fragment. There are three things to look for.

  1. You have a group of words that starts with a capital letter.
  2. The same group of words ends with a final punctuation mark such as a full stop (.), question mark (?) or exclamation mark (!).
  3. There is no main clause between the capital letter and the final punctuation mark.

A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence. It’s usually a piece of a sentence that, somehow or other, has become separated from the main clause. This might be my mistake, or the writer may have done it on purpose.

Here’s an example, and it’s a mistake:

  • The company offers training courses in a variety of topics. Such as human resources, finance, business management and communication skills.

This example is easy to fix. You take away the full stop and replace it with a comma.

  • The company offers training courses in a variety of topics, such as human resources, finance, business management and communication skills.

Here’s another example (and another mistake).

  • We have gone 10 percent over budget. Because this year we unexpectedly had to purchase new equipment.

And the revision:

  • We have gone 10 percent over budget because this year we unexpectedly had to purchase new equipment.

Intentional Sentence Fragments

Technically, sentence fragments are ungrammatical, but sometimes, particularly in fiction, an author might write a piece of a sentence without a subject or main verb. Sentence fragments are most often used in dialogue and reflect spoken language. Or they may be used to answer a question. The main thing to remember is that if you are going to use them, you need to use them intentionally, and not too often. You don’t want your readers to think that you have made a lot of mistakes and don’t know how to write sentences. In Understanding Style Joe Glaser says that when they are used infrequently, “intentional fragments can enliven your style.”

Here’s an example from Annie Dillard, who uses sentence fragments effectively in this short excerpt from An American Childhood.

“How long does it take to draw a baseball mitt? As much times as you are to give it. Not an infinite amount of time, but more time than you first imagined.”

Sentence Fragments in Business Writing

When it comes to business writing you’re unlikely to see such intentional sentence fragments in letters, but they are common in emails.

An example:

  • Team meeting on Thursday at 10 am. Agenda attached.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #125—Modal Verbs for Ability: ‘Can’ and ‘Be Able to’

There’s often confusion about the differences between can and be able to. Sometimes we can replace one with the other, and sometimes we can’t. Both are used to talk about ability. I thought I’d try to clear up when and how we use these for you.

Before I go into the detail, I want to highlight three important things about can.ability quote - ford

  1. Can has only two forms: can (present) and could (past).
  2. There is no present perfect form.
  3. There is no infinite (to) form.


  • I can’t concentrate on work now.
  • I haven’t been able to concentrate on work this morning.


  • We can finish this report tomorrow.
  • We might be able to finish this report tomorrow.

Present Ability and Possibility

When we want to talk about present ability we use both can and be able to, but it’s more common to use can. Be able to sounds more formal.

  • Can you finish that report this afternoon? (Are you able to finish …)
  • I can get that done for you, but it won’t be until tomorrow. (I am able to get that done  for you …)

Future Ability and Possibility

When we talk about the future, we can only use will be able to.

  • When I’ve attended that training course, I will be able to create formulas on Excel. (not ‘I can create …’)
  • I will be able to finish that report when I get the data from marketing. (not ‘I can finish that report …’)

Decisions and Future Arrangements

When it’s about decisions, or future arrangements, we use either can or be able to.

  • The boss can meet you next Thursday. (The boss is able to meet …)
  • Right now I’m busy, but if you give me ten minutes, I can help you out then. (… I’ll be able to help you out then.)
  • Rather than us taking the train, can Jonathon drive us? (… is Jonathon able to drive us?)

Past Ability

When we talk about an ability that existed for a while in the past, but which isn’t true now, we use could or was/were able to.

  • When I was at uni, I could work all night and still stay awake during lectures (…was able to work all night …)

Action Verbs: Ability Related to a Single Event

In this case we only use was able to or were able to.

  • We were able to go to the meeting yesterday, even though we were running late, because the traffic was light. (Not ‘We could go …’)
  • I was able to finish the report this week. (Not ‘I could finish…’)
  • I was able to get a lot done at work yesterday because so many people were away. (Not ‘I could get a lot done …’)

Stative Verbs: Ability Related to a Single Event

We use either can or was/were able to with some stative verbs (e.g. see, hear, feel, taste).

  • Were you able to see the new exhibition stand yesterday? (Could you see…)
  • I was able to hear the speaker even though he didn’t use a microphone. (I could hear the speaker…)
  • Because I was sitting towards the front, I was able to see the slides clearly. (…I could see …)

Negative Statements: Single Events and Actions over a Period of Time

For negative statements, whether they are single events or actions that took place over a period of time, we use couldn’t and wasn’t/weren’t able to.

  • I wasn’t able to finish the report yesterday. (I couldn’t finish …)
  • She wasn’t able to type so quickly before she did that new intensive typing course. (She couldn’t type …)
  • We weren’t able to register for the conference. (We couldn’t register …)

Happy writing.


Business Writing Tip #124—Elliptical Constructions

Today we’ll take a short look at elliptical constructions. These have nothing to do with the elliptical machine at the gym, thankfully. This “elliptical” comes from “ellipsis”, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “The omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues.”knitted tree cover (640x622)

In short, an elliptical construction is one where we leave something out. Often we do this to avoid repeating a word of a phrase. Here are some examples to show what I mean. In these examples you can leave out the words that are in the square brackets.

Leaving out a noun

Kristy attended the conference last week; Prakash attended [the conference] too.

Leaving out a verb

She enjoys dramas, and he [enjoys] comedies.

Leaving out a verb-phrase

The sales team went to the conference, but marketing didn’t [go to the conference].

These constructions are useful when we list statistics or figures.

In 2011, the company made 10% profit; in 2012, 12%; and in 2013, 14%.

Happy writing.

Please note: Today’s image has nothing to do with the topic. It’s just I found this yarn bombing in Prague amusing.

Business Writing Tip #123—Contractions

contractionsIn formal business writing we don’t often use contractions but, as you can see, we do use them in blogs. We also use them quite freely in emails.

There are two kinds of contraction.

Noun/pronoun/etc. + (auxiliary) verb

  • I’m ready.
  • Do you know when you’ll get here?
  • I’ve no idea what he’s talking about.
  • Where’s the 3rd floor conference room?
  • Somebody’s coming to represent the marketing department at the seminar.

(Auxiliary) verb + not

  • The reports aren’t ready.
  • He won’t be late for the meeting, will he?
  • I haven’t had a chance to finish the report yet.
  • Can’t you do it at lunchtime?

Now what about the rules?

Short form ’s (for ‘is’ or ‘has’)

Can be used after:

  • Nouns
  • Questions words
  • ‘Here’ and ‘now’
  • Pronouns
  • Unstressed ‘there’

Short forms ’ll, ’d and ’re

Commonly used after:

  • Pronouns
  • Unstressed ‘there’

Rarely used in writing after nouns and questions words, although we often contract the words when we pronounce them.

  • Your boss will be pleased. (not boss’ll)
  • He was wondering what had happened to make you late for the meeting. (not what’d)

What about when there’s more than one subject?

We usually avoid contractions when we have two subjects.

  • The boss and I will be coming to the meeting this afternoon. (not The boss and I’ll)

Where does the apostrophe go?

We put the apostrophe in the same place as we would have put the letters we left out.

  • Has not becomes hasn’t.

Notice though that there’s only one apostrophe in each of the following words, although more letters are missing.

  • Shan’t instead of shall not
  • Won’t instead of will not

Happy writing!

Adapted from Practical English Usage by Michael Swan