A WORD, PLEASE:

Comma splices and run-on sentences are a lot like the Kardashian sisters. They're famous, but I have no idea why.

Pretty much every time I've taught a grammar seminar, someone has asked me about the dreaded run-on sentence or the even-more-dreaded comma splice. Yet, in my mumble-mumble years of working as a copy editor, I've never found these two bugaboos to be a serious problem for writers. In all the articles I've edited, I've never run across a sentence like, “I wanted to go to the store I got in the car I reached for my keys my keys weren't in my pocket I went in the house I found them on the kitchen table I was relieved.” Nor have I run across a sentence like, “I wanted to go to the store, I got in the car, I reached for my keys, my keys weren't in my pocket, I went in the house, I found them on the kitchen table, I was relieved.”

The first is a run-on sentence. The second is a comma splice. And, as with so many other things grammatical, they prove that there's nothing to fear but fear itself. The real danger of these over-trumpeted writing mistakes is that the names can frighten writers and thus undermine their confidence. This fear can also distract writers from more serious writing problems like poor word choice and misplaced modifiers.

So it's worth putting these two writing boogeymen under the microscope so we can see that they're easy to understand and even easier to avoid.

Let's start with run-on sentences.

The dreaded run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses are put in the same sentence with no conjunction or punctuation mark between them. As independent clauses are really just units that can stand on their own as sentences, understanding this is a no-brainer.

“I like milk” is an independent clause and also a complete sentence. “I drink a lot of it” is another independent clause and — you guessed it — a complete sentence. What happens when we put these two into the same sentence? You get this: “I like milk I drink a lot of it.” Do you really need a fancy label to tell you that's a bad idea? I didn't think so.

There are several ways to fix a run-on sentence. One is to simply split it up into two or more sentences. “I like milk. I drink a lot of it.”

You can also use a conjunction such as “and,” “but” or “so” to link the two ideas. “I like milk, and I drink a lot of it.” By the way, many style guides say that when you link two independent clauses with a conjunction you should put a comma before the conjunction. But with very short sentences you can often leave the comma out.

Another way to fix a run-on sentence is to use a semicolon. “I like milk; I drink a lot of it.”

When you use just a comma instead of a semicolon, or a conjunction to separate independent clauses, that's what's called a comma splice: “I like milk, I drink a lot of it.” Same basic problem. Same simple fix.

Either find a better way to attach the two clauses — a semicolon, or a conjunction with comma — or separate them into two sentences.

I suspect that these two supposedly pervasive writing problems are famous mainly because they have catchy names. Let's just hope these sisters don't get their own reality TV show.


?JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@ aol.com.

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