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Run-ons, Fuses, and Comma Splices

Two weeks ago, I wrote about sentence fragments and how they can add punch and style to your writing. Today, we’ll look at another common writing error: The run-on (fused) sentence or comma splice.

I’m not very lenient about run-ons and comma splices in writing. They are almost always confusing and indicative of a new or unpracticed writer. I find it interesting that one of the pet peeves noted by editors in this excellent article by Lady Rosalie Skinner is the run-on sentence.

As with fragments, it’s important to note exactly what run-ons, fused sentences, and comma splices are. First, and most importantly,

Long Sentence = Run-on Sentence?

Well, not automatically. I have read some profound, brilliant, beautifully and perfectly constructed sentences that were well over the 17- or 25-word “limit” that some writing gurus mention. In fact, for a beautiful example of a very long, perfectly constructed sentence that communicates a brilliant story, check out the short story “Telescope” by Nick Arvin in his collection In the Electric Eden. It’s amazing. The story is one sentence of several hundred words, but you never get lost in it. He constructs it through a series of parenthetical phrases, and when he closes them all, you see the “telescope.”

A run-on or comma splice is actually a form of an incomplete sentence. Where a fragment lacks a subject, verb, or object, a run-on or comma splice lacks appropriate periods, commas, semi-colons, or other punctuation.

A run-on can actually be a very short sentence. Witness:

He ran fast he had to escape.

This example consists of two sentences—two complete thoughts—fused together without appropriate punctuation. That’s where we get the other name for run-ons, by the way—a fused sentence is the same as a run-on sentence.

Now, I could put a comma in the middle…

He ran fast, he had to escape.

…But that causes me another problem. Now I’ve created a comma splice—two independent clauses or complete sentences joined by a comma.

My suspicion is that agents and editors probably see the second example—the comma splice—more often than the first. It’s easy to spot fused sentences and fix them. It’s not so easy to spot comma splices.

I also think that the comma splice error might be more common among speakers/writers of British English rather than American English. If I’m wrong, please correct me, but when I read blogs I tend to see a lot more comma splices on my British friends’ blogs than on my American friends’. (Maybe that’s because we Yanks can’t manage long thoughts.) This may be a stylistic difference in dialects, so I would recommend that you look at your contemporaries and peers if you speak and write British English. There might be a more lenient outlook to comma splices in the UK standards.

How to Fix Run-ons and Comma Splices

The basic fixes are very simple—punctuation! Let’s go back to my simple example:

He ran fast he had to escape.

The easiest way to fix this run-on is to put a period in the middle.

He ran fast. He had to escape.

You can also use a semi-colon:

He ran fast; he had to escape.

Or, you can use a comma plus a conjunction:

He ran fast, and he had to escape.

The same basic methods apply to fixing comma splices. Just replace your commas with periods or semi-colons, or add a conjunction after your commas. When you see long sentences with several clauses joined by commas, be very aware that you are likely in comma splice territory. Even if you haven’t created comma splices, consider breaking up your sentences into smaller bites for readability.

Mixing It Up: More Sophisticated Fixes

If you want to get more creative (and of course, you do, because you’re a writer!), try some more sophisticated fixes for your run-ons and comma splices.

You can add a word:

He ran fast because he had to escape.

You can delete words:

He ran to escape.

You can change your sentence around and make one clause subordinate:

Because he had to escape, he ran fast.

You can change a few words:

He ran fast, the desperate need to escape driving him forward.

When to Use Run-ons and Comma Splices

It’s hard for me to think of any times when it might be all right, but here are a few possibilities:

Stream of consciousness: There are times when stream of consciousness writing is appropriate, but it’s tricky. It takes a very talented, very unique author (a Cormac McCarthy or a James Joyce) to pull off stream of consciousness, and most of us are not McCarthy or Joyce. And I tend to think that stream of consciousness is very rarely appropriate in genre fiction. I admit that’s a completely subjective idea and totally my opinion. I appreciate literary tropes and good writing in all its forms, but I think the uses of stream of consciousness in genre fiction should be few and far between.

Dialogue: As always, most rules are flexible in dialogue, because most people don’t speak in perfectly constructed sentences. I think it would be better to use comma splices in dialogue, and probably only when the speaker is under duress or rambling for some very obvious reason.

Here’s a short paragraph from my novel Ravenmarked that illustrates when run-ons or comma splices are appropriate. The heroine has just killed a bear, and she’s a little freaked out by the experience. She’s talking to the hero (who just made a joke to lighten the mood):

She breathed out a weak laugh. “I heard it rooting around in the trees. It came out at a run and then it stopped and stood up on its back legs, and I shot—I didn’t even think about it. I just shot, but it kept coming. It couldn’t see, but it kept coming. I had to stab it. I’ve never killed anything before. You’ve killed everything we’ve eaten. It’s one thing to shoot at a target, but this—” The words tumbled out in a rush as she started to shake. “All the blood—it just sprayed everywhere and I—”

You can see that even in that rush of words, I didn’t technically use any run-ons or comma splices, but it would have been an appropriate place to do so.

Action Sequences: A series of run-ons or comma splices could be useful in an action sequence. I prefer fragments, but a good comma splice could have the same effect of communicating urgency, panic, or intensity.

My general advice, however, remains the same: Avoid run-ons and comma splices, and if you want to use them, do so very judiciously.

Next week, I’ll be sharing a few more thoughts on antiheroes and what makes them different from villains or villain protagonists. I’ve really enjoyed the discussion around my hero series, and I’ve done more research and thought about the whole topic a lot more. I think I’ve refined my thoughts a bit, and I want to share what I’ve come up with and why I think it’s important for writers.

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar gregorylent says:

    faulkner for run-on sentences, and brilliant.

  2. More great advice, thanks Amy.

  3. Another great article. I am not good at recognising those pesky problems, and your article is clear and concise and I think is a great follow on to what our helpful editors were commenting on!!
    I look forward to your next article too.

  4. […] week: My thoughts on the hero spectrum. In two weeks: Comma splices and the run-on sentence. VN:F [1.9.16_1159]please wait…Rating: 10.0/10 (11 votes cast)The Sentence Fragment: A Matter of […]

  5. […] your comma splices, fuses, and run-ons. I reviewed comma splices and run-on sentences in this article last year. If you’re falling into a pattern of using too many comma splices and fused sentences, […]

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