1. ProwerGirl
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    ProwerGirl Member

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    When does a sentence become a run-on?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by ProwerGirl, Apr 5, 2011.

    This is a pet peeve of mine. I have quite a bit of trouble writing short, simple sentences, so mine are usually pretty long. My English teacher has tried to break me out of it, without success. I constantly worry they're too long, though.
     
  2. lostinwebspace
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    lostinwebspace Active Member

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    Technically a run-on sentence isn't a sentence that keeps going, but one that has different independent clauses with no conjunction, something grammatically incorrect. You can write a sentence that goes on and on for pages, but as long as there are coordinating conjunctions joining it, it's not a run-on. It's rambling. Conversely, you can have a run-on sentence that goes for only four or five words.

    If you find you keep rambling, just break the sentences up in two or three different sentences. This might be something to do in a later draft, but as long as it gets done, you're fine. The average sentence should be up to 25 words long (I think that's the ideal maximum). After that, readers might lose track of the idea of the sentence.
     
  3. ArtWander
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    ArtWander Contributing Member

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    Not really sure about the technically definition (as has already been explained), but I find that a good example of when a sentence turns run-on is if you have to use transition words more than twice in any one sentence. Example:

    "The giant monster reared it's ugly head and roared with deafening noise that seemed to rip into my very soul and I screamed at the mere sight of him."
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A sentence should convey a unified thought. A compound sentence can join related actions, but should still express a single thought. Granted, the rules for fiction are somewhat more casual than for essays and articles, but you should still keep sentences crisp and clear.

    A sentence that tries to cover an entire scene or sequence is a mistake.

    Rediscover the power of the simple declarative sentence.
     
  5. teacherayala
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    teacherayala Contributing Member

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    There are four basic forms sentences can take, although I definitely have seen rule-breaking for creative purposes. Anne Tyler writes these sentences that go on for around 3/4 of a page! Drives me nuts.

    Anyway, the sentences are the following:

    Simple:
    (1 subject 1 verb) The dog ran after the cat.
    (2 subjects 1 verb) The dog and cat ran after the mailman.
    (1 subject 2 verbs) The dog chased and ate the mailman.

    Compound:
    (Subject + verb, conjunction, subject + verb)
    The dog chased after the mailman, and the cat soon followed.
    The dog chewed on the mailman's bag, but the cat climbed a tree instead.

    Complex:
    (Dependent Clause + independent clause)
    While the dog chased the mailman, the cat climbed a tree.
    (Independent clause + dependent clause)
    The cat climbed a tree while the dog chased the mailman.

    Compound-Complex:
    While I screamed at the top of lungs, the dog ran after the mailman, and the cat climbed a tree in fright.

    Basically, the point is that any sentence that ends up way longer than a compound-complex sentence most likely needs some reworking.

    I'm noticing that people tend to stick to simpler sentence structures in the modern short story these days. There's something to be said for clarity of thought in the shorter sentence. I tell my students: If your sentence is longer than three lines, you should re-examine it to see if it's a run-on.
     
  6. aimi_aiko
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    aimi_aiko Contributing Member

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    Usually, when I fear I'm accidentally writing a "run-on", I re-read what I have written and I think to myself where the pause should be. When I feel that there should be a pause somewhere in the sentence, I usually place a comma or period (depending on the sentence).
     
  7. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe even reading it out loud gives you a hint if it's too long or not, if you need to pause to breathe in the middle it probably is, ;). Or if it by the end of the sentence you are left breathless. ;)
     
  8. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The sentence types are a bit more flexible than your examples would suggest. It's entirely possible to write grammatically correct sentences that go on for 3/4 of a page. And I don't think they're a particularly helpful way of categorising sentences. I think it's more useful to think in terms of noun phrases, verb phrases and so on. For example:
    Actually, there can be any number of subjects and verbs -- or, rather, there's one noun phrase as the subject, one verb phrase, and some other possible bits (such as an object). But only some types of noun phrase. "The dog and cat" is simply a noun phrase. "The dog which had barked all night and the cat which was afraid of the dog" is a noun phrase too, but use that noun phrase and it's not a simple sentence any more.
    A compound-complex sentence can be of pretty much indefinite length because of the way clauses can be nested. So no sentence can end up "way longer than a compound-complex sentence"
    Again, length is no clue to a sentence being a run-on.

    Try this sentence from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse:
    Since he belonged, even at the
    age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate
    from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows,
    cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest
    childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise
    and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James
    Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated
    catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a
    refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.​
    I'm not suggesting anybody should write like that, but it's just a compound-complex sentence!
     
  9. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Virginia Woolf. Can't you just hear the way she must have talked? How she'd cock her head awkwardly and squeeze the last cubic centimeter of air out the base of her lungs in order to finish her sentences, and do so with a tone of voice that more resembles a death rattle. She'd pause a bit after, looking mildly dizzy, and then resume her smoking and pondering.
     
  10. Finhorn
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    Finhorn Senior Member

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    What I'm getting from the discussion is that the length isn't as important as the content. I personally think Cogito had it right when he said "A sentence should convey a unified thought." Once you have the thought down, you should move onto the next sentence.

    One could write like Virginia Woolf but people like me aren't going to read it. Your English teacher (and teacherayala) encourage short sentences both because it's the more modern style and they tend to be easier to read.

    For practice, try writing dialog of two kids fighting over a cookie. Or describe what the football team did on third and long. Action scenes and kid's dialog naturally lend themselves to brevity. Then take a look at your writing. If you're still happy with it, leave it alone.
     
  11. Ophiucha
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    Ophiucha Member

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    There is certainly a place for long sentence. And that place is between shorter sentences.
     
  12. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Officer, I've been hit by a run-on sentence!"
    "That's serious business! Can you describe it?"
    "I don't know... it went so fast... it was kind of long and pretentious, and the words kind of stumbled over each other. They didn't even slow down to see if I was allright!"
    "Those bastards! People have no sense of responsibility these days! Are you hurt?"
    "Only my sensibilites, officer. Only my sensibilities."
     
  13. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have to confess that I didn't get far beyond that sentence in To the Lighthouse, although analysing it was a splendid exercise when I was studying grammar :)

    Too many long sentences leads to turgid prose. Too many short sentences leads to choppy prose. Keeping the mix right is tricky, and is one of the marks of a particularly skillful writer.

    By the way, that sentence from To the Lighthouse is so tricky because the ideas are nested one inside another. A sentence of similar length with the same ideas but with the ideas one after the other, rather than nested, would be far easier to read. That's something that readability metrics gloss over. Some long sentences are easy to read. Here's a rewritten version of the Woolf sentence:
    James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores as his mother spoke, endowed the picture of a refrigerator with heavenly bliss, because even at the age of six he belonged to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, and because to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests.​
    Ok, still hard work, but now that's mainly because of the abstract concepts ("the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests" -- what on Earth does that mean?) rather than because of the sentence structure and length.
     
  14. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agree. Or readability. If it reads well, I think it's ok.
     
  15. ketamineman
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    ketamineman Member

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    i am a fan of using a paragraph long sentence once in a while

    just seems to fit sometimes

    not really something i would do every chapter or more than once in a chapter though
     

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