English composition/ run-on sentences, comma splices

  

Many of you are still having trouble with run-ons, despite any work you’ve done with our grammar handbook or with http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/runons.htm, so here is my advice:

First of all, if you have a run-on, congratulations: it is a sign of sophistication because what you’ve done is to combine a couple of different, independent ideas in a single sentence. But the bad news is that doing this, without the proper punctuation between the two ideas, is considered a major error in college classes (and well beyond college, where applications, resumes, and reports are often summarily rejected when they contain grammatical errors, to say nothing of the confusion created by bad grammar). Consider the following: 

She hates rutabagas they taste like cardboard.

This is the simplest sort of run-on because there are merely two independent clauses stapled together.  (To remind you, an independent clause is a group of words with both a subject and a predicate and the ability to make complete sense on its own.)  A run-on, though, would also happen if you tried to fix this sentence with just a comma, as in

She hates rutabagas, they taste like cardboard.

This is still a run-on (some people call it a comma splice) because a comma does not have enough weight to signal the arrival of a new, complete idea; commas are most often used for lists, dates, or after introductory phrases.

Now for how to fix a run-on (methods in descending order of preference):

1)  Add a connecting word (a subordinating conjunction) at the start of either clause to show the relationship between the two ideas:

She hates rutabagas because they taste like cardboard.

This eliminates any confusion about how the two ideas are related; here, you (the writer) take the responsibility of showing us clearly your intended meaning.

(http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/conjunctions.htm has a handy list of the different types of conjunctions.  For now, it will help you to know that the most common subordinating conjunctions are ‘because,’ ‘since,’ ‘after,’ ‘that,’ ‘when,’ and ‘where.’)  

2) Add a comma and a FANBOYS word between the two ideas, which also shows the relationship between the thoughts:

She hates rutabagas, for they taste like cardboard.

Likewise, this eliminates confusion.

(The FANBOYS words are also called coordinating conjunctions. They are‘for,’ ‘and,’ ‘nor,’ ‘but’ ‘or,’ ‘yet,’ and ‘so’ – there are only seven in English.)

3) Insert a semicolon between the ideas:

She hates rutabagas; they taste like cardboard.

This is less preferable than 1) or 2) because it does not indicate a relationship between the two ideas, other than that they are more intimately related than if they were separated by a period, which brings us to our last method:

4) Insert a period between the ideas:

She hates rutabagas. They taste like cardboard.

This leads to many overly-short sentences, which will create a very choppy, grade-school effect, so don ’t use this method often.  (This said, remember what I wrote earlier this semester about how short sentences can work wonderfully, especially at the end (and sometimes the beginning) of longish, involved paragraphs.) 

One easy way to check for the most common type of run-ons is to look at any sentence longer than nine or ten words and see if there is an ‘and’ or a ‘but’ near the middle. If there is, cover it up with your pinky and check to see if the words on either side could be sentences (independent clauses). If the answer is ‘yes,’ then you must insert a comma before the ‘and’ or ‘but’ to avoid a run-on. 

So that’s it.  Read over this mini-lesson a couple of times to make sure that you understand the ideas and terms I’m using. If in doubt, check your handbook or the http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/ website.

Now for a little test. Which of the following are run-ons?

1. Ezra took a nasty spill on Sunday, he was riding too fast.

2. The worst way to win is to cheat because it reflects poorly on both the individual and the team.

3. Carmen Basilio was the middleweight world champ back in the late 50’s and his face showed it.

4. Excellence in teaching is hard to come by, especially since the standards in higher education have dropped so much in the last twenty years.

5. Gavin loved graphic novels the interplay of words and images seemed magical to him.

6. Spring comes late in the mountains; still, a stray crocus or tulip might be spotted by mid-May in a few of the south-facing lawns.

7. Harleys are simply the best bikes there are, no other kind has such legends tied to it.

8. If you don ‘t run at least thirty miles per week, you’d better forget about a marathon since it requires, more than anything else, endurance. 

If you answered that all the odd numbers were run-on’s   – nicely done! You’re getting the hang of it!

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A RUN-ON SENTENCE (sometimes called a “fused sentence”) has at least two parts, either one of which can stand by itself (in other words, two independent clauses), but the two parts have been smooshed together instead of being properly connected. Review, also, the section which describes Things That Can Happen Between Two Independent Clauses.

It is important to realize that the length of a sentence really has nothing to do with whether a sentence is a run-on or not; being a run-on is a structural flaw that can plague even a very short sentence:

The sun is high, put on some sunblock.

An extremely long sentence, on the other hand, might be a “run-off-at-the-mouth” sentence, but it can be otherwise sound, structurally. Click here to see a 239-word sentence that is a perfectly fine sentence (structurally)

When two independent clauses are connected by only a comma, they constitute a run-on sentence that is called a comma-splice. The example just above (about the sunscreen) is a comma-splice. When you use a comma to connect two independent clauses, it must be accompanied by a little conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so).

The sun is high, so put on some sunscreen.

Run-on sentences happen typically under the following circumstances*:

  1. When an independent clause gives an order or directive based on what was said in the prior independent clause:This next chapter has a lot of difficult information in it, you should start studying right away.
    (We could put a period where that comma is and start a new sentence. A semicolon might also work there.)
  2. When two independent clauses are connected by a transitional expression (conjunctive adverb) such as however, moreover, nevertheless.Mr. Nguyen has sent his four children to ivy-league colleges, however, he has sacrificed his health working day and night in that dusty bakery.
    (Again, where that first comma appears, we could have used either a period — and started a new sentence — or a semicolon.)
  3. When the second of two independent clauses contains a pronoun that connects it to the first independent clause.

This computer doesn’t make sense to me, it came without a manual.

(Although these two clauses are quite brief, and the ideas are closely related, this is a run-on sentence. We need a period where that comma now stands.)

Most of those computers in the Learning Assistance Center are broken already, this proves my point about American computer manufacturers.

Again, two nicely related clauses, incorrectly connected — a run-on. Use a period to cure this sentence.

This list of situations in which run- on sentences are apt to happen can be found in Sentence Sense: A Writer’s Guide by Evelyn Farbman. Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Examples our own.

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