Run-On Sentences or Please Take a Breath

By Kay Springsteen

Are you sick of the 24/7 Christmas songs you’ve heard for the past month or so? Kind of glad your radio station went back to regular air play?  Well, just in case you want a fond memory of a Christmas song, do you recognize this one?

Hark! how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say,
“Throw cares away.”
Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer
To young and old
Meek and the bold
Have you ever listened to this song and wanted to yell, “Take a breath already!” Punctuation in our writing is the reader’s way of taking a breath regardless of whether we’re reading out loud or silently. Some pauses for breath are longer than others, more definitive. These pauses are what sets up the rhythm of what we’ve written so the reader can read it in the manner we imagined it being said.

For this reason, in fiction, we often use periods for full-stop emphasis on sentence fragments. Used sparingly, a sentence fragment brings desired attention to a thought or action. Consider this brief excerpt from my novel Heartsight:

Sounds filtered through first: the rhythmic squeak of a cart being wheeled through the hallway, the low trill of a telephone at the desk just beyond the door. The shrill ding of an alarm warned that an IV needed attention. The beep-beep of a telemetry machine signaled his heart still beat steadily. Muffled voices hovered at the edge of his awareness; people speaking in hushed whispers, as if afraid they would wake the sick and the dying.

Or the blind.

In this passage, I not only separated the fragment from the previous sentence, I separated it from the entire paragraph. I used these three words in the sentence fragment to give readers the cue that my hero was blind. I could have as easily stated it in a full sentence:  Perhaps they were afraid of disturbing the blind. But at the time, my writing voice dictated the use of a fragment for this announcement. I wouldn’t want to read an entire book of passages with such construction, but fragments do have their uses.

Run-on sentences, on the other hand, hardly ever have a justifiable use unless it is in dialogue and something that builds characterization. An excited child, for example might run on and on and on to the point where he or she is advised to breathe. But for the purposes of introspection, description, or action narration, a run on sentence will only serve to give your readers one of those “What-the…” moments.

A run-on or fused sentence, more formally known as a comma splice, is an attempt to connect two or more independent clauses with the use of a comma instead of a period, a semi-colon, or a coordinating conjunction. Such sentences usually occur when we think of two ideas that are closely related and string them into one sentence because to us they are one thought. Most people don’t think with correct grammar. Our mind inserts the appropriate pauses as we think. And because we’re the ones doing the thinking, we don’t need the visual cues of punctuation to give us the rhythm and pattern of the sentences making up our thoughts.

However, as writers, it is up to us to ensure a smooth read. You wouldn’t expect to pick up a book with the words all strung together with no punctuation or paragraphs. It wouldn’t make sense:

the yellow dog ran into the room and laid on the mat by the heater he began licking the snow from his paws charlie said mom you have to have your feet wiped before you walk on my nice clean floor the door opened and my brother ben walked in and flopped in the kitchen chair little globs of snow slid from his boots to form puddles around his feet on the floor

You get the idea. While we can probably figure it out, because of punctuation, we don’t have to. As authors, we have to pay attention to the rhythm of our writing so we can insert the appropriate visual cues for the reader. So it’s important to understand what makes up a clause, what makes a clause independent from another, what makes one dependent on another, and the best way to separate the independent clauses from one another.

An independent clause is made up of a group of words containing a subject and a verb, and expresses a complete thought: Jenny read a book in the library.

A dependent clause is made up of a group of words containing a subject and a verb but by itself does not express a complete thought. This is a sentence fragment (see above for their use). A dependent clause is frequently signaled by a dependent marker word. When Jenny read a book in the library…(The thought is incomplete. What happened when she read in the library?)

An independent marker word is a connecting word used at the beginning of an independent clause, such as also, consequently, furthermore, however, moreover, nevertheless, and therefore. These words can always begin a sentence that can stand alone. If one of these words begins the clause (subject + verb = complete thought), you have a stand-alone, or independent clause, and a period or a semi-colon must precede the clause.

Now that you have an understanding of dependent versus independent, consider the following sentence.

Last summer was dry, therefore many of my garden flowers died.

Note the independent marker in the sentence? This is a signal that these are two separate clauses, and thus this is a run-on sentence. There are several easy fixes for this:

  1. Separate it into two sentences with the independent marker in place: Last summer was dry. Therefore, many of my garden flowers died.
  2. Separate it into two sentences without the independent marker in place: Last summer was dry. Many of my garden flowers died.
  3. Use a semi-colon to separate the two clauses: Last summer was dry; therefore, many of my garden flowers died.
  4. Rephrase using a coordinating conjunction*: Last summer was dry, so many of my garden flowers died.
  5. Make the first half of the sentence a subordinate clause: Because last summer was dry, many of my garden flowers died.

For the sake of altering the rhythm and helping the story flow in a logical manner, it’s best to try to change these methods up when repairing comma-splice sentences.

* The seven coordinating conjunctions used as connecting words at the beginning of an independent clause are and, but, for, or, nor, so, and yet. A comma is needed before the coordinating conjunction when sentences are constructed in this fashion.

It is best to use method #5 above with great care. Many authors who have attempted this method of sentence construction run into trouble with misplaced modifiers. Watch for a future article on that particular bane of the writer’s and editor’s existence.

Now, speaking as your potential editor, does anybody here wish you’d paid more attention to Schoolhouse Rock? “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function…?”

6 responses to “Run-On Sentences or Please Take a Breath

  1. Great article Kay. Thanks for posting. I have a tendency to write run ons during the first draft and correct when I pre-edit.

  2. Great tutorial.
    Commas are my most significant failing (as you will soon discover).
    To mask my indecision about the correct use of commas, I’ve used dashes, elipses, and all manner of other punctuation … most of which are equally wrong. There — I’ve just produced two more violations.

  3. Great blog. But, I have a different kind of problem. I put commas everywhere.

  4. Allison, you can also use the rule of clauses to decide if you need a comma. Determine what pieces of the sentence belong together. A rule of thumb is if the sentence makes sense with no comma, eliminate it.

  5. Great article, Kay, Punctuation is the bane of my life!

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