One more thing about commas…

They aren’t periods.

"Run-on sentences? Game over!"

“Run-on sentences? Game over!”

When a writer uses a comma where a period belongs, he creates a run-on sentence. We all know this. We all know what a run-on sentence looks like. Yet, I see this error quite often, even from experienced writers.*

In terms of language mechanics, if a writer makes two full statements in one sentence but doesn’t have an and, but, so, which, or some other conjunction after the comma (or at the very beginning), he needs a period instead. Consider the following hypothetical recap of the latest Game of Thrones episode.

“The shows featured lots of gratuitous nudity, there was oodles of killing too.”

This is a run-on sentence. It’s pretty obvious when we read it but not always when we write one like it ourselves. After my comma-themed post the other day, a few commenters mentioned that their primary-school teachers had advised them years ago to put a comma wherever they felt they would pause if speaking the sentence aloud. I have no background as an educator of children, so perhaps those teachers understood something I don’t about child development. Still, that seems like terrible advice. People pause between sentences, don’t they?

Here are more examples:

“My trip to Tokyo was a disaster, Godzilla showed up and smashed the department store.”

“Life was miserable for Jan Brady growing up, her sisters got all the attention.”

Godzilla! Godzilla! Godzilla!

Godzilla! Godzilla! Godzilla!

When you revise your latest writing project, be it a novel, blog post, essay, short story, memoir, manifesto, confession, or ransom note, read it aloud. If something sounds choppy, check to see if you didn’t accidently let a run-on sentence slip in there. It might have felt like a proper sentence when you wrote it because of how you mentally phrased it, but if there’s no conjunction after the comma, and the second clause sounds like a complete sentence with a subject, you have a run-on. Let’s revisit one of the examples.

“My trip to Tokyo was a disaster, Godzilla showed up and smashed the department store.”

This sentence has two subjects: your trip to Tokyo and Godzilla. These are excellent subjects but maybe not when crammed together like that. We could turn it into two sentences, as in, “My Trip to Tokyo was a disaster. Godzilla showed up and smashed the department store.”

Another option is to employ a conjunction. “My trip to Tokyo was a disaster, because Godzilla showed up and smashed the department store.”

You can also stick a conjunction at the beginning. “Since her sisters got all the attention, Jan Brady was miserable growing up.”

Or, as I prefer, “My trip to Tokyo was awesome! Jan Brady was miserable because Godzilla smashed the department store, so she allowed the festering rage within to take control, which manifested itself in the form of an instant growth spurt that turned her into a 400-foot-tall, lighting-spitting middle sister. I watched in stunned silence as the titans engaged in a death battle and laid waste to a once-gleaming metropolis.”

See. I told you I am a writer. You think a goon like Hemingway could have conceived that?

***

*When I do one of these punctuation or grammar posts, I may imply the error I’m discussing is encountered with alarming frequency. Let’s just say, instead, that the error under discussion happens often enough that I wrote a post about it.

To help confuse you, I created this meaningless chart. It’s pure nonsense, but I advise you to keep your errors in the blue area anyway. Let those green and maroon bastards take all the heat.

We apologize. Rabid weasels hacked into our servers and inserted offensive content into this chart. Rest assured that category 4 does not in any way represent your face or suggest that your face has errors.

We apologize. Rabid weasels hacked into our servers and inserted offensive content into this chart. Rest assured that category 4 does not in any way represent your face, your loved one’s faces, or the faces of anyone living or dead. We also regret that a chart about errors has an error. 

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44 responses to “One more thing about commas…

  • nrhatch

    This post is not cool, dude! Run on sentences are now a protected classification under the “Let’s All Be P.C. Act.”

    And semi colons are up in arms at being marginalized with all this discussion about commas, periods, and conjunctions.

    Watch your back!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I second NR’s sentiment about the marginalization of semicolons. Couldn’t they too have worked in your examples as well?

    The shows featured lots of gratuitous nudity; there was oodles of killing too.

    To me, this conveys a more sophisticated tone than make a separate, short sentence of There was oodles of killing too.

    As for what my teacher taught me about reading aloud, she made a distinction between a pause and a full stop, the latter being what happens between sentences. It always made good sense to me, for all that it might not produce the most grammatically correct results. The jury is still out on that one: when I revise my WIP, I’ll have to see if the comma-between-independent-clauses error is a consistent one for me, or just a one-off I made that time.

    For your next punctuation post, how about one on dashes?

    • ericjbaker

      Ha! I almost wrote that exact semicolon example, but I ultimately decided I’m not crazy about semicolons and that my post would spiral out of control if I tried to present all possible ways of reordering the sentence.

      To me, the semicolon in that scenario makes the sentence sound choppier than it would as two sentences. Semicolons also make me feel like I do when I’m driving up the Central Park West section of 8th Avenue in NY and keep hitting red lights. Perhaps I’m brainwashed against them, having worked around editors for years and hearing how lame semicolons are all the time.

      They serve a good utilitarian purpose in breaking up lists within lists. Believe it or not, I have to do that a lot at work.

      • Janna G. Noelle

        Eric, as you come to read more of my writing (particularly my stories), you’ll discover I’m a big fan of diverse punctuations: semicolons, colons, and dashes. I’d even go so far as to say the semicolon is my favourite punctuation. Good thing I know an awesome editor who can tell me if my self-taught usage is actually correct!

        • ericjbaker

          As long as you stick with the Canadian spelling of words like “favourite” and “colour,” I’m all in for the rest.

          There’s something charming about the mix of a North American accent and British spelling you north-of-the-border folks have come up with. I guess that’s as close to “exotic” as it gets for a Vancouverite.

          🙂

  • Kevin Brennan

    Someone could make a case for using a colon instead of a comma for a certain rhetorical panache. “Life was miserable for Jan Brady growing up: her sisters got all the attention.”

    Not to be overused, mind you, but it’s an option.

    Now I must —

  • Jodi

    And here I thought colons were just for digestion… A friend of mine (and head of the English department at UVU) has a conniption whenever she sees run on sentences. The funny thing is that she refuses to call them run ons and instead calls them comma splices. Anyone want to argue the difference? I have popcorn. 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Ba-dum crash!

      Sure, I’ll argue the difference. The comma splice is the error that leads to the run-on sentence, the end result of the error. And I just pulled that out of my, er… never mind.

      Does UVU stand for Ultra Violet University. Is your friend half human, half glowing deep-sea creature? Because that would be the coolest friend in the history of friends.

      • Jodi

        Ok, that makes sense. Could you please stop pulling things out of there? It’s kinda gross.

        My friend is pretty awesome, although I haven’t asked her about shape shifting tendencies, or taken her to water, so we’ll never know. UVU is Utah Valley University.

        Does that qualify as a run on? I think I might have a problem. She found over 40 in the last short I had her critique, grrr.

        • ericjbaker

          Next time you see her, bring one of those UV flashlights (that’s a thing, right?) and waved it at her surreptitiously. If you see glowing spots, you know.

          Look. We’re brainstorming a Goosebumps plot without even trying.

        • Jodi

          Yay! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered what it would be like to just give up and start writing middle grade fiction.

        • ericjbaker

          My son advised me in that direction the other day. He’s only 12, but he’s usually right about these things.

  • Arkenaten

    No, I am damn well not going to proof read another of my books – again – just because it might not be Baker Proof! 😉

    I am avoiding watching the England-Uruguay match so as not to get nightmares and then I go and click on my mailbox and find this.
    Dammit, Eric, now I must go and read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or something to take mind off commas and run ons and ….and …sheesh!

    • ericjbaker

      You can read The Godfather by Mario Puzo and revel in the relentless run-on sentences and misapplied punctuation. I’m not sure if it was a “style thing,” but I couldn’t take it after 2 chapters.

      Johnny got in the car, he drove downtown, at the grocery store he saw Michael, Michael forgot about the fight apparently. No one mentioned what happened to Mr. Luigi; Mr. Luigi was shot twice he never saw it coming, the police were in on it.

      Ugh. It’s like 700 pages of that.

      • Arkenaten

        I never read it – saw the film, of course. I’ll take your word for it. Yes, it would be jarring to have to wade through 700 pages of that.

        • ericjbaker

          many times I’ve heard the declaration that books are always better than the movies they inspire, but I can give plenty of counter examples, starting with that one. Maybe I’m just a philistine who doesn’t “get” it.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Marsha, Marsha, Marsha! Did I ever tell you I have almost every episode of The Brady Bunch memorized? I lived for that show when I was a kid.
    No doubt I’m guilt of the misused comma. As far as the semicolon, I’m scared of them. Once I had a portion of my novel critiqued by a professional and I was told semicolons don’t belong in fiction writing. Her reason was, ‘they jerk you out of the story.’ See you tomorrow, Eric!

    • ericjbaker

      I agree with that writing professional, but, of course, its all subjective. I wouldn’t stop reading a good book because it had semicolons. Someone might dislike my work for its lack of details.

      So are you one of those people who walks around saying, “Pork chopsh and apple-shaushe”? My bass playing buddy Tony is a huge Brady Bunch fan, incidentally.

      I’m looking forward to my moment of glory!

  • VarVau

    The sentence you use looked like one in which a semi-colon should have been applied instead of a comma since the notion of ‘oodles of killing’ is closely tied to the first portion of the statement.

    The concept of commas being used to denote a pause is something I’ve heard before, but I don’t think it was meant to be applied to fiction writing. This use sounds like something for writing speeches to give an orator a guide of when to pause, or substituting for semi-colons.

    • ericjbaker

      Hi there! It’s been a while, Var.

      As you said, the Game of Thrones example would be solved by a semi-colon for the reasons stated. I also agree with your other statement, but on a broader scope. That is, I think nonfiction and fiction each requires a different approach to punctuation. In fiction, it should stay out of the way as much as possible, because fiction is meant to flow and be read more quickly. Nonfiction is conveying information, and things like semicolons can help clarify meaning. The nonfiction writer is worried less about pace (in a way) and more about making ideas concrete.

      I probably just blew a post topic in this reply, or I can hope that no one else read it besides you and me.

      😉

      • VarVau

        Haha. Yes, probably so. If a narrative’s voice can get away with the comma use, then it is fine. Most cases I see don’t have a reason other than mechanic.

  • L. Marie

    Glad I discovered your blog through Jill Weatherholt’s blog. Ha. I love a good punctuation discussion. I like semi-colons also. Yet I can see how some might see them as aiding and abetting run-on sentences.I prefer the term “enabler.”

    • ericjbaker

      Well said. If you end up reading future posts, you’ll find me making periodic declarations that I can’t stand writing rules because they can stifle creativity and because they sometimes aren’t rules at all but the personal taste of the “expert” on hand. So, while I avoid semicolons in fiction, other people think they are cool. Personal expression trumps expert opinion, and it certainly trumps the rambling of bloggers like me!

      😉

  • Marylin Warner

    You grabbed my attention on Jill’s blog. This follow through on your own blog will keep me coming back!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for visiting and for the comment! I enjoy being part of the WordPress Expanding Universe of writers and bloggers, and I especially enjoy getting to meet and know people through blogs that I follow.

  • Luanne

    I agree with others, in a way, as I have a love-hate relationship with semi colons. I wish I still taught composition so I could share this post with my students. Wait, that’s a lie as I glad I no longer teach composition, but if I did have to do so, I would be even gladder for this post.

    • ericjbaker

      Funny you should say that. I did a post on pretentious writing ages ago. It still gets a click here and there, like any old post, but twice a year, in September and February, it gets about 300 clicks in two days. I’m guessing an English teacher somewhere is making her students read it. I’m glad if I can do my part to help the cause.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Luanne!

  • livelytwist

    Good one Eric. It’s good to know the rules before you break ’em. Sometimes I write run-on sentences just because they look good and sound better to me 🙂
    I think I’ve got a few in the blog post I just finished writing. I better crosscheck before my face ends up on the graph!

  • uju

    Awesome read as always, Eric. I’m certain I’ll dream of commas tonight.
    Pray, can we have a lecture on semi colons and dashes too? Those are more confusing than poor comma.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m afraid I’ll have to do some research into dashes. People don’t seem to agree!

      I save semicolons for business writing. In my view, they draw attention to themselves in fiction, which is not what I want my reader to focus on. Once again, people disagree. Funny thing, language.

      Please come back and share your comma dreams. I’m curious to find out what one is like.

      🙂

  • 1WriteWay

    Well done, Eric. We can quibble over whether to use a semicolon or colon in place of a comma, but the point is to avoid run-on sentences. In your examples, I think the period is most appropriate. I do love semicolons and colons, but try to use them sparingly. Years ago I read a memoir by a well-known author whose name escapes me right now (geez, and I’ve even had my requisite amount of caffeine). Anyway, I remember being stunned by a sentence that was several lines long, the clauses broken up by semicolons. While I think it was technically correct (at least his editor saw no reason to revise the punctuation), I had to re-read the sentence several times before I understood its meaning. That experience left me feeling self-conscious about how I use semicolons. Perhaps you could write about the use of semicolons?

    • ericjbaker

      My objective as a writer is to avoid slowing the reader down or tripping her up. I aim to write briskly and clearly, and I feel that, especially with fiction, semicolons have the opposite effect. They’re usually used as paste, which never quite hardens.

      • 1WriteWay

        Perhaps then it’s a matter of style. The author I mentioned in my comment was writing in a stream-of-consciousness style … definitely slow, but it was a thoughtful memoir, not a lot of plot and action. I’ve never thought of semicolons as “paste” but that’s an interesting way to describe the effect. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever used semicolons or even colons in my fiction.

      • 1WriteWay

        You might find this funny. I am editing a three-page literature review written by a young university student. His prolific use of semicolons is driving me crazy! 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Oh, and I found a run-on sentence today in a novel I am reading. It got past the editor somehow.

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