When is a sentence a sentence? Part 1

Part 1: Comma Splices and Run-on or Fused Sentences

The topics in this post are related to the previous 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 numbers 15 and 16 respectively in the Top Twenty errors list.)

Cited by Kolln as being among them 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 straightforward 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.

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