Run-on Sentences: What Are They?

This round of blogs is a series aimed at students who engage in academic writing. In all, the series will constitute a kind of primer on academic writing for students. Each post will tackle a problem I’ve seen in papers from my classmates, my students, and myself.

This week’s topic is the run-on sentence. I give a definition and reasons to edit these out. Shall we begin?

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A run-on sentence is a sentence in which multiple independent clauses are placed together in a kind of string without punctuation or proper conjunction. When sentences run on in audible conversation, they can be ignored or forgiven or clarified there in the moment. When sentences run on in academic writing, the paper comes across as sloppy, unedited, and (perhaps) as something submitted without much thought given to it. For a clearer, stronger paper, hang in there with me as I explain run-on sentences and how to fix them in your editing process.

If you read Greek, look for an example in literally almost any sentence written by the apostle Paul.

If you’re limited to modern languages, here are two examples.

“I could not find the book on the bookshelf where is it?” or,

“The apostle Paul was a Hellenized Jew raised under Roman rule who studied under Gamaliel he was a great example of a young Jewish man before his conversion to Christianity.”

Both of these examples include at least two independent clauses, but they are jammed together without punctuation or proper conjunction. Independent clauses are units of thought in a sentence (or that make up an entire sentence) that could be a separate sentence if put on their own. Look at a snapshot of one from the second example. “…he was a great example of a young Jewish man before his conversion to Christianity.” The italicized unit of thought is an independent clause because you could write that as a stand-alone sentence and it would make sense. If you took “before his conversion to Christianity” on its own, however, it does not make much sense. It could confuse the reader regarding to whom you refer. It is an adverbial clause that clarifies, and should remain with the independent clause to which it is connected.

Back to the primary issue of run-on sentences. Let’s fix these examples, and hopefully benefit your paper writing.

Example 1 is, “I could not find the book on the bookshelf where is it?”

This example is a bit easier. Simply put a period after “bookshelf” and begin a new sentence. This separates the independent clauses.

Fixed Example 1 is, “I could not find the book on the bookshelf. Where is it?”

The second example is a slightly more complicated.

Example 2 is, “The apostle Paul was a Hellenized Jew raised under Roman rule who studied under Gamaliel he was a great example of a young Jewish man before his conversion to Christianity.”

This run-on sentence has two clear independent clauses, with two dependent clauses that you may want to change into independent clauses (and, therefore, independent sentences). Let’s begin with the simpler work of breaking this long example in two. You could place a period after Gamaliel, making it, “The apostle Paul was a Hellenized Jew raised under Roman rule who studied under Gamaliel. He was a great example of a young Jewish man before his conversion to Christianity.” While a little awkward, this edit will work.

Better work, however, would break this down into three or four sentences. This would change it to something like the following. “The apostle Paul was a Hellenized Jew raised under Roman rule. He studied under Gamaliel. Paul was a great example of a young Jewish man, but his conversion to Christianity changed all that in the eyes of the Jewish leadership.”

Run-on sentences muddy any academic work. Avoid this problem by breaking them into separate sentences. In doing so, you will have clearer and more precise papers.

Come back next week for keeping the passive voice out of academic writing. Until then, excelsior!

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