Many writers may not be familiar with ‘run on sentences’, or what they mean, but plenty of writers inadvertently end up using them from time to time, while other writers actively discourage their use.
So what, exactly, are they?
A run-on is a sentence is made up of two or more independent clauses ( a complete sentence) that are joined together without punctuation (i.e. semicolons, colons, dashes or full stops) or a conjunction (i.e. for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so etc).
Run-on sentences happen very easily and all writers have unintentionally used them when in the furious throes of writing, particularly if focused on the first draft, which is always full of countless errors and flaws. It’s at the editing stage where the errors are put right, including run-on sentences.
Fortunately, the run on sentence is easy to spot and just as easy to correct. They are very noticeable when read back through your work, because they make the narrative flow of sentences look odd, for example:
He realised he had missed the train he knew he couldn’t miss the interview.
She eyed him with suspicion she knew he was lying.
He heard the rush of the explosion behind him he ran to the car.
The sunset spread across the sky it flooded the landscape with a hazy hue.
Each example shows how the sentence falters at the point that there should be an independent clause. They are considered grammatically incorrect because of the clumsy sentence structures they create. Run on sentences don’t just weaken the narrative, they also don’t read very well.
So, how do you put them right once you’ve discovered them?
Because the structure is made up of two or more independent clauses without punctuation, then it’s a matter of putting the punctuation where it belongs. Let’s look at the above examples again, but this time, to avoid the run-on structures, the correct punctuation is in place:
He realised he had missed the train, but he knew he couldn’t miss the interview.
She eyed him with suspicion. She knew he was lying.
He heard the rush of the explosion behind him and he ran to the car.
The sunset spread across the sky. It flooded the landscape with a hazy hue.
Now the sentences read more smoothly, they make sense and are no longer clunky. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.
There is another variation of the run-on sentence that, while considered grammatically erroneous, they are considered as acceptable within fiction writing, and they are known as Comma Splices.
The Comma Splice
A comma splice is when two independent clauses are connected by a comma, rather than the correct conjunction (and, or, but, for etc) or punctuation. The examples below are comma splices:
The rain was hammering down, he shut the window.
Dave picked up the shovel, opened the shed door.
John obviously knew what she meant, he was an intuitive person.
While some sentences can look a bit awkward – writing relies on our judgement a lot of the time – and certainly the first one is awkward, but the other two are not too bad. They are easily correct with the right conjunction (or punctuation), for example:
The rain was hammering down. He shut the window.
Dave picked up the shovel, and opened the shed door.
John obviously knew what she meant; he was an intuitive person.
Comma splices are very common, but unlike some aspects of writing that cause bad sentence structures, such as adverbial or adjectival sentences, comma splices are not as terrible if they are used solely for effect from time to time. They don’t weaken the narrative half as much as adverbs, poorly placed participles or adjectives. In fact, they can heighten the sense of pace.
The intended meaning of a sentence isn’t changed by their appearance, and while some may see them as grammatically incorrect, comma splices do have a small role in effective narrative, none more so than when writing is restricted by the amount of words, such as short stories and flash fiction. They’re exceptionally useful for cutting out extraneous conjunctions, moving the narrative along and keeping to strict word limits.
In essence, run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect and should be avoided, and they are considered a bad thing. That said, the odd comma splice is acceptable; plenty of established and famous writers like to use them. The thing to remember is not to overuse them.
Next week: Getting your story to flow.