• Writing (Photo - Orin Zebest, flickr).

      Writing (Photo – Orin Zebest, flickr).

      As a college English instructor for the past 20 years, I’ve seen my fair share of run-on (or fused) sentences in my students’ writing.

      By Chris Wood

      I’ve heard many reasons for this anomaly: (1) a lack of reading; (2) a lack of connectors (commas, periods, conjunctions, semi-colons) between two independent clauses; (3) a lack of expressing one’s thoughts clearly; and (4) a lack of proofreading and editing. While these reasons are valid, and while many teachers pull out their hair (mine included; see profile pic) when they encounter run-on sentences, I actually see their benefit.

      Don’t get me wrong: I don’t exactly require my students to write run-on sentences. Many of my students don’t even know what a run-on sentence is, even when they write one. Add to this a fifth reason for the run-on sentence: a lack of guidance. That isn’t to say I’m denigrating my fellow English teachers; in fact, far from it. If anything, most English teachers — especially ones I know — go far out of the line of duty to show their students what a run-on sentence looks like, what causes it, and what remedies are necessary to cure it, as if a run-on sentence were some aesthetic ailment. Some students get it; others don’t. Does that mean, though, that the latter are illiterate? Well, maybe, if they’re solecistic — particularly if they don’t read examples of complete sentences. But they’re far from ignorant or uneducated. Quite the contrary, in fact: they’re passionate, and they have something to say. They just go about it in a different way, and they’re to be taken seriously. I know this because I see it in their writing.

      Comma (Photo - GJo, commons.wikimedia.org).

      Comma (Photo – GJo, commons.wikimedia.org).

      Recently, I decided to reassess run-on sentences as personal expressions rather than syntactical errors. I began to regard choppy sentences — even if they were complete — as a series of incomplete thoughts and run-on sentences as complete ones. Why, you might ask? Because a choppy sentence often lacks substance; it runs out of fuel too soon. Sometimes it seeks to make a valid point, but the choppy sentence that follows often fails to continue or support it. A run-on sentence, on the other hand, is actually a thought process carried out to completion. Granted, a run-on sentence is just that: two or more sentences that aren’t connected with or separated by punctuations and/or conjunctions. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly isn’t an example of bad writing. Take, for instance, the first paragraph of the Victorian novel “A Tale of Two Cities”:

      It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only (Dickens 1).

      In one paragraph, in one run-on sentence, Charles Dickens introduces the novel’s central tension between love and family, on the one hand, and oppression and hatred on the other. What makes this opening sequence even more remarkable is that Dickens doesn’t end one sentence to begin another. Instead, he follows his train of thought to the very end. Breaking up his run-on sentence into a series of choppy ones would have detracted from the theme of the novel and the flow of passion he felt for it.

      After reading a run-on sentence, after seeing a student continue a thought to its very end, I’ll ask that student if there’s anything s/he can do to make it more accessible to the reader. If the student doesn’t initially understand my question, I’ll ask her or him to read the run-on sentence out loud. Almost every time this happens, the student will discover that the run-on sentence either needs to be broken up into two or three fluid sentences or that s/he’ll need to insert commas, periods, conjunctions, and semi-colons — again, with the reader in mind. The goal is not to be grammatically correct; it’s to be understood.

      So instead of focusing on writing complete sentences, some English teachers may do well by encouraging their students to express themselves then help them make their complete thoughts understood.

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