Mistake of the Month: Run-on sentences

by • June 25, 2013

Run-on sentences make my brain feel like it is suffocating.

According to Grammarly’s research, run-on sentences are among the top grammar mistakes made by writers worldwide. A run-on sentence contains two or more independent clauses (a group of words with a subject and a verb that can stand alone as a sentence) that are not connected with correct punctuation. Though there are different kinds of run-on sentence errors, most often writers neglect to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.).

Correct usage: I enjoy writing immensely, and my deadline is looming.
Incorrect usage: I enjoy writing immensely and my deadline is looming.

Here are two situations that require a comma before a coordinating conjunction:

  • when listing three or more items in a series
  • when and is being used to coordinate two independent clauses (a group of words with a subject and a verb that can stand alone as a sentence)

Although run-on sentences may be technically inaccurate, they are common. And, like any writing “rules,” they can be employed as a stylistic choice.

Famous “Culprits” Using Run-on Sentences

Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner both won The Nobel Prize in Literature, and they are both known for their long, run-on sentences―as is James Joyce. Contemporary writers like Cormac McCarthy and Tim O’Brien also have literary love affairs with the run-on sentence, but if they didn’t, would their writing be as beautiful as it is?

“They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

If you think run-on sentences are completely manageable, try making sense of “The Most Excruciating Run-on Sentence in the History of the Internet”.

And, if you’d like to see another example of an intentional and artistic application of a run-on sentence, check out “One Sentence Love Story” by Nick Cox.

Do you think the use of run-on sentences adds to, or detracts from, the quality of literary writing?

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