What is a run-on sentence?

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. This is an update of part 1 of “What is a sentence?” Ellen ~~

Run-on sentences, which include comma splices and fused sentences, deal with the question When is a sentence a sentence?

A run-on sentences is essentially a compound sentence that has been incorrectly coordinated or punctuated, and thus this post is related to the post on the use of a comma in compound sentences.

As discussed in that post, these errors are the consequences of failing to use a comma correctly when joining compound sentences: the run-on or fused sentence (joining or fusing two sentences without a comma and conjunction) and the comma splice (joining two sentences with only a comma). (As noted in that post, these are errors numbered 15 and 16 respectively in the Top Twenty list.)

Cited by Martha Kolln in Rhetorical Grammar as being among the most common errors that writers make, comma splices and run-on/fused sentences are considered serious errors in formal writing (Weaver Teaching Grammar in Context). They result from the failure to identify a sentence unit.

Kolln remarks that these errors in particular perplex teachers because they derive from “a straight forward and common situation: a sentence with two independent clauses” (81).

In the post on comma use in compound sentences, we discussed the traditional definition of a sentence or independent clause: a word group consisting of a subject and a verb and giving a sense of completeness; in other words, a sentence makes sense by itself.

Kolln argues that the first task is to recognize sentenced patterns – the various ways that subjects and verbs (or predicates) combine to make an independent clause.

The second task is to understand the boundaries of a sentence.

LeTourneau in English Grammar (490) defines a run-on sentence as consisting of two simple sentences with no punctuation (or boundary) between them:

I felt the wall for the light switch I couldn’t find it.

He goes on to present a theory that run-ons occur because a speech pattern, the topic/comment structure, is being used in writing, rather than the subject/predicate structure of written sentences.

In the run-on sentence below, I’ve marked the topic and comment parts.

I felt the wall for the light switch  I couldn’t find it.

(topic)                                                  (comment)

According to LeTourneau, comma splices are run-ons punctuated with a comma:

I felt the wall for the light switch, I couldn’t find it.

Kolln says a comma splice is produced “when a comma defines the sentence boundary” (253). Thus it is important to know when a sentence is a sentence by recognizing the subject-verb sentence patterns and by understanding its boundaries.

To correct a run-on sentence or a comma splice, you can insert a period or a semicolon, or you can connect the clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction, one of the FANBOYS explained in blog post 3.

Writers need to understand the essentials about grammar and writing, the context and purpose of their work. When writers are confined by a particular style guide for publication, they may need to follow the traditional punctuation rules so that their work is choice is not labeled an error. (This is a common theme throughout the WritingEssentials blog and is discussed in depth in the post on needing a style guide.) However, when a writer is exploring sentence structure and rhythm, these prescriptive rules do not apply or are purposely ignored for rhetorical purposes.

(Resources: Top Twenty; Rhetorical Grammar; Teaching Grammar in Context; English Grammar.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *