I first noticed the confusion about four years ago, when my fellow online graduate students were reading an essay I wrote, and they left comments accusing me of using run-on sentences, though there were no actual run-ons in my essay.
Please note, the previous sentence is NOT a run-on sentence. It is a compound sentence joining two independent clauses. The first clause has the subject, “I”, the verb, “noticed”, and the direct object, “confusion”, and the other, after the conjunction, “and”, has the subject, “they”, the verb, “left”, and the direct object, “comments”, with the rest of the words in prepositional and adverbial phrases. THAT WAS NOT A RUN-ON SENTENCE EITHER!
Merriam-Webster.com, the online version of the famous dictionary, defines a run-on sentence as:
“a sentence containing two or more clauses not connected by the correct conjunction or punctuation”.
Notice, there is no mention of sentence length in this definition. Whether or not a sentence is a run-on depends on the use, or lack thereof, of conjunctions and/or punctuation marks that correctly join two independent clauses to form one sentence.
Therefore, a run-on sentence can be as short as:
It rained I slept through it.
This is a common type of run-on I see often. You have two independent clauses, each with their own subject and verb, which are not connected with “and” or “but” or “while”, or any other correct conjunction, or by an appropriate punctuation mark such as a semicolon.
Here are other examples of run-ons:
Don’t complain you’re fine.
My cat died I couldn’t stop crying.
He didn’t listen to them he went out anyway.
As you see, the two clauses in each of these run-ons can be connected by a semicolon or conjunction to form a correct, complete sentence, or can be separated into two complete sentences. That is what makes these examples run-ons. It has nothing to do with how many words are in the sentences.
I usually defend my long but correct sentences by calling them “Dickensian”, as they resemble some of the lengthy but correct sentences in much of Victorian novelist Charles’ Dickens’ famous work. That was not a run-on.
However, I will admit that, by today’s grammatical standards, Dickens’ perhaps most famous paragraph — the one that begins his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, which begins,
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
— is actually one long run-on sentence, though this sentence is not. However, many of Dickens’ long sentences are perfectly correct and perfectly beautiful.
I don't know when lengthy sentences began to be mischaracterized as run-ons. Was it reader laziness?
Did school teachers tire of reading their students' really long sentences and get out their mighty and powerful red pens to write "RUN-ON" over them before they finished reading? The previous sentence was not a run-on.
Am I being too hard on teachers who have to wade through students' scribble or should I say typing? Do students still write on paper?
I don't know the answers to these questions. I only know that long, correctly structured sentences have to right to be heard and written.
I will leave you, Dear Reader, with an example from Dickens' 1838 novel, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, from Chapter 50, “Involves a serious Catastrophe”, in which an important character dies as the result of a duel:
“The sun came proudly up in all his majesty, the noble river ran its winding course, the leaves quivered and rustled in the air, the birds poured their cheerful songs from every tree, the short-lived butterfly fluttered its little wings; all the light and life of day came on; and, amidst it all, and pressing down the grass whose every blade bore twenty tiny lives, lay the dead man, with his stark and rigid face turned upwards to the sky.”
Yep, that’s all one sentence. Run-on, indeed! Bah! Humbug!
This story was originally published on Medium.com.
About the Creator
An older Gen X-er, my childhood was surrounded by theatre people. My adulthood has been surrounded by children, first my students, then my own, and now more students! You can also find me on Medium here: https://medium.com/@becklesjm