Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, August 28, 2013 15 comments
Photo credit: DTL from morguefile.com
Run-ons are one of the most common errors I see in academic writing (aka my day job as a scholarly journal editor). 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?

15 comments:

  1. Run-on sentences have been something I've struggled to overcome. It's sort of how I speak and it translates directly into my writing. :)

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    1. One way to identify overly-long sentences when you edit is to track how many lines long each sentence runs, especially if you resize your pages to A5, which is roughly a paperback page. Run-ons definitely jump out when the page is smaller.

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  2. I hate run-on-a-thons too. On the other hand, I find myself writing very short sentences, which sometimes makes my writing too stark. Almost cold. Ugh.

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    1. There can be times when a run-on makes artistic sense, such as in dialogue, to show a character's excitement or anxiety--times when one would tend to babble naturally.

      I agree that nothing but short sentences gives a rather brusque tone to a work. That can work for achieving a certain effect. But most of the time, you want a variety of sentence lengths.

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  3. All so easy to do in the heat of the moment, especially on the first draft!

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    1. Absolutely. And sometimes a run-on is the best way to show the emotion of excitement or anxiety.

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  4. Kurt Vonnegut also disliked the semicolon!

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    1. I think working an academia--where it is one of the most abused kinds of punctuation--has colored my thinking on it.

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  5. Yes, those can be so annoying. One of my pet peeves is a prepositional-phrase-a-thons, like: He sat on the curb by the bus stop in the rain after dark two blocks from the cemetery. lol
    Great post! :-)

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    1. Those kinds of sentences can even become annoyingly sing-song, right?

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  6. A 11 LINE SENTENCE? ... There are no words for that kind of travesty. Short is better. Sometimes I think people forget that communication is all about that: communication.

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    1. Sometimes the more educated one becomes, the more one forgets the basics, like grouping related ideas in a paragraph rather than a sentence.

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  7. Hi Crystal -

    I'm linking to this post on 9-13-13.

    Susan :)

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    1. Glad you found it so useful you want to share. :-)

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  8. As a college professor, I understand what you mean. I see these all the time.

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