Run-on sentences never seem to end. Although they let us express so much of our thoughts in so many different ways, run-on sentences offend our readers, listeners, and friends, without our even realizing it.
Beware of run-on sentences
“Take a Breather, Will Ya?”
When I was growing up, I lived in a cul-de-sac (back then, we called it a dead end). We kids would be out playing in the circle, and sometimes the moms would be congregated in the center somewhere. They were chatting, keeping an eye on us to make sure we didn’t kill each other. Sometimes they’d be in making dinner, and we’d know when it was time to come home when the porch light flashed on and off (or if the streetlights came on, whichever happened first).
These were all very proper ladies. We were past the hats and gloves by that point, but they were all cultured and well-spoken. There were three Americans, one Brit, one Irishwoman, and one Scot.
An American and the Scot have since passed on, may they rest in peace. (Turns out the Scot was known as The Scottish Nightingale and had given a command performance to Queen Elizabeth! She was so humble that we only found out in her obituary.)
Now, forty years later, I’m Facebook friends with one of those moms. I still try to call her Mrs. Simmons (not her real name), but she insists that we’re all grownups now so I should call her by her first name. It feels weird.
She didn’t say it exactly that way, though. The message was more like: Call me Janet we’re all adults now no need for such formality don’t you think I know it was the way you were raised but things are different now you were always such a good kid.
Merriam-Webster Run-on Sentences
What? For starters, I was a pretty rotten kid, beating everyone up when the moms weren’t looking. But really, Mrs. Simmons—Janet—where is your punctuation? I beg you for a comma or a period or a question mark, even an exclamation point! You always seemed the most eloquent of the bunch, with your teacup and saucer in hand while standing out with the moms.
Merriam-Webster.com defines a run-on sentence as “a sentence containing two or more clauses not connected by the correct conjunction or punctuation.” So Janet’s true message is running on . . . and on . . . and on. There are at least five different thoughts in that sentence with only one conjunction, and nary a sign of punctuation till the very end. Let’s take a look and break it down for her, adding punctuation.
- Call me Janet.
- We’re all adults now.
- No need for such formality, don’t you think?
- I know it was the way you were raised, but things are different now.
- You were always such a good kid.
Okay, the first two items are closely related enough that we could use a semicolon and join the two thoughts in one sentence. Grammar rule 6.54 in the Chicago Manual of Style has this to say about the utilization of a semicolon: “In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would.” In other words, this bit of correct punctuation will help alleviate the condition of a run-on sentence as defined by Merriam-Webster.
Speaking of run-on sentences
So now we have: Call me Janet; we’re all adults now. No need for such formality, don’t you think? I know it was the way you were raised, but things are different now. You were always such a good kid. (That last bit still doesn’t sit well with me, but who am I to argue?)
And there we have it. A friendly message on social media, dragging this author into the etiquette of addressing elders in the twenty-first century. And with time to take a breather between sentences.
Well, AT LEAST THE MESSAGE WASN’T IN ALL CAPS . . .
Have you ever attended a lecture where the keynote speaker droned on and on to the point of verbosity inciting boredom and ennui among his listeners? Much the same effect in literary works is caused by what grammarians term “run-on sentences.”
This term describes exactly what they do: they run on and on.
Now, in social conversations, we usually speak in run-on sentences. We certainly do not pause after every complete sentence. We may tell the story of our trip overseas as the thoughts and memories come to us, sometimes bubbling over without pause.
Our listeners have many clues to interpret our meanings other than our words alone. They witness our facial expressions, hear the tone of our voice as it rises and falls, increases and decreases in volume, etc.
In writing, however, our readers have no such clues. Proper punctuation and proper grammar are all the clues they have to correctly interpret and comprehend the meaning behind the words we give them.
A writer composing fiction infused with the creative spirit may write as the ideas tumble out of his head, and he writes rapidly so as not to lose the train of his thought. The result is often a string of run-on sentences that can leave a reader mystified. The central point of each sentence remains swallowed up by a mixture of modifying phrases, dependent and independent clauses, and extraneous descriptive adjectives and adverbs.
As with the bored lecture attendee, a frustrated reader is tempted to exclaim, “So, what’s the point?”
A careful review by the author is required to eradicate any errors such as run-on sentences to assure that readers have all the tools they need to interpret the words correctly.
Run-on sentences are not music to the ears
Run-on sentences not only hamper adequate comprehension, they also interrupt the rhythm and fluidity of the prose. While it may seem odd to compare literature to music, it remains true that all good literary works maintain a cadence and tonality of accented syllables that delight our ears as the sounds play out in our minds.
Not only do the appearance of the printed words affect our senses, but the pleasure of their rhythmic sounds delight our mental ears. A run-on sentence often loses these sensitive points and becomes only a list of variously related words, phrases, and clauses.
The following example of a run-on sentence in a work of fiction might present a clearer picture:
“Henry entered the room with a smirk on his face and a swagger to his gait which gave him a supercilious air, if, of course, one were to judge him closely, not necessarily with any rancor, but with merely mild interest he might take note of the expensive, if somewhat extravagant cut of his attire, which suitably complemented his fastidious manner of speech, which he carefully interspersed with a smattering of well-chosen, if somewhat esoteric, French bon mots.”
We can easily rewrite this in three sentences instead of one. Try. See if you can.
The danger of run-on sentences
Writing a run-on sentence occurs when two or more independent clauses, which are simple sentences that could stand on their own, are written without proper punctuation or transitions as one sentence. Run-on sentences result in hilarious misunderstandings, total gibberish, or complete breakdowns in communication.
Sometimes there are just too many ideas running through your head. In your haste to get them down before they get away and are lost forever, you write without pause. Sentence after sentence you write as you are caught up in the plot, character development, and suspense.
Now, you might have noticed that these first two sentences are very long, but they still make sense. A run-on sentence is not the same as a very long sentence, for example:
Hunters, please use caution when hunting pedestrians using walking trails.
The sentence is quite short, but surely it doesn’t mean that hunters are quite welcome to shoot any pedestrians they find on the trails as long as they are careful about it. What is lacking in this sentence is punctuation.
Well-placed full stops and commas would go a long way to resolving the unintentional invitation to murder! And of course, our sentences should be:
Hunters, please use caution when hunting. Pedestrians using walking trails.
A run-on sentence, though, is not always this easy to identify. Not using a comma before a coordinating conjunction, and, but, or or, is a very common error, but that would be all it took to be guilty of this writing faux pas. Editors are trained to catch these errors.
Authors may also choose to separate clauses by using a conjunction; a simple connecting word like because changes our first example to a graceful:
Hunters, please use caution when hunting because pedestrians use walking trails.
Sometimes there is no other recourse than to rearrange the sentence by adding or removing words. In fact, in the sentence above, by adding the word because, I had to change the verb using to use. Perhaps an even better sentence or sentences would be:
Hunters, please be cautious. Pedestrians are using the walking trails.
Wrapping up run-on sentences
Remember, craft longer sentences skillfully. Readers prefer simpler sentences that they can grasp quickly. Authors can try too hard to impress, with the result being an often convoluted, run-on sentence that just doesn’t make sense. If a sentence contains two or more whole ideas, with their subject and verb, then care must be taken with the punctuation and expression of that sentence.
Originally posted 9/26/2016 and happily updated 11/16/2017. Thanks for reading!