Run On, Sentences!

21 May

The amount of money I have is directly proportional to how seriously I take expiration dates.

If I have a lot of money, I pay a lot of attention to expiration dates.  Well, I imagine that I would.  As this has never been the case, I’m going to have to imagine.  So, in this imaginary scenario where I have lots of money, if the carton is telling me that the milk expires on May 21st, then on May 21st, why, I throw out the remaining milk and go to the store and buy milk that is fresh.  And then I ride home on my jetpack and read people’s minds.  Again, this scenario is imaginary.

In real life, where I do not have very much money, I treat expiration dates with–what’s the right word here?–skepticism.  I don’t consider myself much of a conspiracy theorist (what if the Lone Gunman fired at Tupac from the moon?!) , but when I’m out of money, my thoughts about expiration dates tend to get … creative.

What IS time?!  Who decides when milk goes “bad”?  Is milk from the wrong side of town?  Did milk lack the appropriate role models growing up, and now he’s acting out?  Who are THEY to tell me when I can and can’t drink my milk?  Who are THEY to tell me that I didn’t WANT my milk to have a certain level of … density?  Nanny state!  I want my country back!  USA! USA! USA! I have to go to the hospital.

So when the most adequate descriptor for most of the food in your fridge is “congealed,” then maybe it’s time for new groceries.  My food has been around too long.

You know what else is around too long?  Run-on sentences!  As an MC Hammer impersonator with a weird speech impediment once said: “Stop. Grammar time.”

There’s a popular misconception that a run-on sentence is just a really long sentence.  That’s simply not true.  A really long sentence that is properly punctuated is perfectly acceptable.  Here is an example of a very long–but grammatically correct–sentence from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:

“It was not to them (not to Hugh, or Richard, or even to devoted Miss Brush) the liberator of the pent egotism, which is a strong martial woman, well nourished, well descended, of direct impulses, downright feelings, and little introspective power (broad and simple–why could not every one be broad and simple? she asked) feels rise within her, once youth is past, and must eject upon some object–it may be Emigration, it may be Emancipation; but whatever it be, this object round which the essence of her soul is daily secreted, becomes inevitably prismatic, lustrous, half looking glass, half precious stone; now carefully hidden in case people should sneer at it; now proudly displayed.”

I’m not going to opine on the benefits or pit-falls of long sentences such as that.  But it’s important to note that the length of a sentence does not denote whether a sentence is a run-on or not.

Run-on sentences consist of two or more  complete sentences that have been fused together without the proper punctuation, and because of this, need to be either properly punctuated or turned into two (or more) sentences.  Here are some examples of run-on sentences:

He was a doctor he was also a father.

Sarah is a nice girl, she bakes me cookies.

Notice that while both of these sentences are rather short, they are both run-on sentences.  This is because they both contain two complete sentences that do not have the proper internal punctuation.  A complete sentence (also known as an “independent clause”) has a subject and a verb and can stand by itself–hence the term “independent.”  A little known fact is that “Miss Independent,” an early hit by Kelly Clarkson, is an homage to a clause who always swore she would be independent, but soon found herself head over heels and, next thing you know, part of a committed compound sentence.  Another little known fact: this situation was also the reason that Facebook added the “It’s Complicated” to its relationship option.  This was a compromise from the original suggestion to have the option read, “It’s Compound-Complex.”

Okay.  Back to independent clauses.  Remember: it needs a subject and a verb and to be able to make sense by itself.  If you look at the first example, you can see that it contains two independent clauses that meet these requirements:

1. He was a doctor.

2. He was also a father.

Both of these have a subject (“he”) and a verb (“was”).  They make sense by themselves.  They are independent clauses.  The same goes for the second example sentence.  Here’s how it breaks down:

1. Sarah is a nice girl.

2. She bakes me cookies.

So how do we make these sentences not be run-ons anymore?  There are several options:

1. Make them separate sentences by ending them with periods.  That option looks like this:

He was a doctor.  He was also a father.

Sarah is a nice girl.  She bakes me cookies.

2. Connect them with a comma AND a conjunction.  Conjunctions include words like and, but, so, etc.  A comma by itself does not work.  A conjunction by itself does not work.  You must have BOTH.  That option looks like this:

He was a doctor, but he was also a father.

Sarah is a nice girl, and she bakes me cookies.

3. Connect them with a semicolon.  You can read more about semicolons here, but for our current purposes, know that a semicolon is a strong as a period to hold two independent clauses together.  That option looks like this:

He was a doctor; he was also a father.

Sarah is a nice girl; she bakes me cookies.

These options work no matter how long your sentences are.  As long as you’ve treated each independent clause appropriately (making sure that it is connected to the next independent clause in one of those ways), you’ll be fine.  As far as choosing HOW to fix your run-ons: that all depends on your writing style and what makes sense/sounds the best for that specific sentence.

Also, based on reader feedback on my shocking reveal about “Miss Independent,” my assistant has been trying to reach a representative for Destiny’s Child to confirm whether their 2000 hit “Independent Women, Pt. 1” was also an homage to independent clauses, but so far, the only information my assistant has been able to bring back is, “Destiny’s Child is not a band anymore; also, I’m not your assistant, I’m the assistant manager at this Subway.  Do you want white or wheat?”  We have such a rapport, my assistant and I!


3 Responses to “Run On, Sentences!”

  1. Learning Assistance Center May 21, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    When deciding how to promote this column on the LAC facebook, I spent a long period of time coming up with a joke about the unnatural unions of independent clauses and how you can convert these clauses to live moral lives with conjunction therapy. And then I had to explain the joke to three people that was a downer.
    Anyway, Virginia Woolf and Black Forest Ham are my two favorite things, so great post!


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