Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, November 09, 2011 10 comments
Dear Editor-on-call,

I'm weak when it comes to run-on sentences. Can you help?

Sincerely,
The On-Runner
(aka Bish Denham at Random Thoughts)

Dear Runner,

You are in good company. Run-ons are one of the three most common errors I see in academic writing. PhD programs in English seem to encourage jamming as many ideas as possible between full stops. I once broke an 11-line sentence into FOUR parts. Clearly this was a case of reader distrust--an anxiety that the reader wouldn't comprehend the way ideas were linked unless crammed together. Keep in mind that a paragraph is the best unit for clearly and readably holding together a series of linked ideas.

The biggest danger of run-on sentences is incoherence. The reader will lose the thread of what you're saying if information isn't parsed into manageable pieces.

The most common form of run-on is the comma splice. This term refers to two complete sentences joined with a comma when they should either be divided or have a conjunction inserted (i.e., and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet).

Example:
It will be clear and hot today, you should put on sunscreen.

Possible fixes:
It will be clear and hot today. You should put on sunscreen.
It will be clear and hot today, so you should put on sunscreen.

Another cause of run-ons is misuse of conjunctive adverbs like however, moreover, nonetheless.

Example:
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities, however, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.

Possible fixes:
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities. However, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.
Rocco has sent his three children to ivy-league universities; however, he has sacrificed his health working long shifts at the foundry.

I am no fan of the semi-colon and would recommend against using the latter method. These two ideas--"children in ivy-league" and "working long shifts"--are not so tightly bonded they need to be in one sentence. The semi-colon version also contains so much information in such a large chunk it can lose a reader.

And speaking of overload, the worst kind of run-on is the clause-a-thon--too many clauses strung together.

Example:
She read the letter from the insurance company that said that the claim we had filed as a result of our accident in center city on May 3 had been sent on to a review committee which would consider the matter and render a decision within a month.

Possible fixes:
She read the letter from the insurance company. It said the claim we'd filed for our May 3 accident had been sent to a review committee. The committee would review the matter and render a decision in a month.

Note that some unnecessary details are dropped and phrases condensed. The claim is for an accident (less wordy than "as a result of"). Where the accident occurred is unimportant. What matters most is whether the insurance company will pay.

The sentence could be further condensed to hit only the most important information:
The insurance company's letter said our car accident claim had been sent to a review committee. We'd have to wait another month for an answer.

The clause-a-thon is the most likely form to occur in fiction. When you run across sentences that are trying to do to much, look for ways to trim details and parse the information into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Example:
My best friend Nancy, who lived down the hall from me and who I first met at a departmental wine-and-cheese event, wore her onyx hair in a braid, smoked clove cigarettes and went through boyfriends like Kleenex.

Possible fixes:
My best friend Nancy lived down the hall from me. We first met at a departmental wine-and-cheese event. She wore her onyx hair in a braid, smoked clove cigarettes and went through boyfriends like Kleenex.

Leaner:
I first met my best friend Nancy at a departmental wine-and-cheese event. Smoke from her clove cigarette had curled around her onyx braid and wafted toward her boyfriend-du-jour.

In some cases, your best fixes will come from deeper level rewrites like this. Instead of using a list to describe Nancy, I turned the descriptions into an active flashback.

Which of these areas trip you up most?

10 comments:

  1. Nice examples there, Laurel! I don't think this trips me up very often. I think being an editor prevents such catastrophes! Actually, I have a tendency to repeat myself but that's another story :o)

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  2. I love the term "clause-a-thon". :)

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  3. I usually spot my clause-a-thons in edits and rewrites. I don't like the semi colon either but I have an editor who does.

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  4. Jessica: I have to keep reminding myself that even though I've mastered the small stuff, it's the meta-level story that matters most.

    Faith: I'm sure there is a technical grammar term, but I didn't have the energy to look it up. This is more memorable, right? ;-D

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  5. Susan: Whether a semicolon is fitting depends a lot on audience. In my fiction for teens, I avoid them. Semis strike me as fitting best in nonfiction and academic writing. But that's just me. J.K. Rowling uses them a little in her Harry Potter series.

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  6. Thanks Laurel. Your first and second examples are the ones that trip me up the most. I can read them and not see/sense anything wrong!

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  7. Bish: The only quick cure I can think of is to make sure each time you name a subject, you start a new sentence (or use a conjunction or semicolon). In the first case, there are two named subjects, "It" and "you". In the second case, the named subjects are "Rocco" and "he".

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  8. I don't think this trips me up much, but I sure could envision a character who talks in run-on...you know, one of those people who never even pauses for breath or gives anyone a second in which to jump in. That could be funny, actually.

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  9. I'm more apt to write short, fragmented sentences than run ons; but I do love my semi-colons :)

    My issues are in knowing when to write a long sentence and when to keep it short and quick paced. I waffle.

    Do you have a post of when fragments are appropriate?

    ........dhole

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  10. Tricia: Characters like that are actually really tricky to pull off. In my overwriting series, I discussed the "babbling" phenom and how it can hamper pacing. Sometimes it's better to tell than show. Sometimes.

    Donna: Ooh, that's a great topic. I'll have to give it some thought and post in the next few weeks.

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