A Run-In with the Run-On

By Virginia Parker Staat

Punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story
without stumbling. ~ Lynne Truss

It was early in my college career, long ago and in a time when students learned to diagram sentences. One of my English professors challenged the class to diagram a 1,288-word sentence. It was a convoluted, rabbit-trail of a sentence, filled with countless clauses. I took the challenge… and failed miserably.

William Faulkner wrote this 1,288-word, so-called masterpiece. In 1983 Guinness World Records crowned him for the achievement, awarding him the title of having written the Longest Sentence in Literature. The sentence originally appeared in his book, Absalom, Absalom. I admit that the experience of trying to diagram Faulkner’s mammoth sentence tainted me from ever truly enjoying his works. It also made me fanatically opposed to run-on sentences. 

Ah, the run-on sentence. How I can rail against it! September 24th is National Punctuation Day. To celebrate this special day in the year, let us look at the illustrious run-on sentence and how to repair it.

The run-on sentence is considered one of the top five most frequent grammar mistakes. It is defined as improperly joining two or more independent clauses. In the case of Faulkner’s 1,288-word run-on sentence, the grammar checking website, grammarly.com, more accurately defines it as “a string of multiple complete sentences without sufficient punctuation to make them readable.”

The most common types of run-on sentences are the comma splice and fused sentences. A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are joined together with only a comma. A fused sentence joins two independent clauses without a conjunction and/or punctuation between them. 

Comma splice example:

  • Wrong: I photographed a bear, he was eating berries.
  • Corrected: I photographed a bear. He was eating berries.

Fused sentence example:

  • Wrong: At first I wanted to diagram the sentence now I don’t.
  • Corrected: At first I wanted to diagram the sentence, but now I don’t.

In the case of a long run-on sentence like Faulkner’s, the issue is normally a combination of faulty punctuation and syntax (sentence structure or word order).

To repair a run-on sentence, check to see if there is more than one complete thought in the sentence. Read the words out loud. Notice where you take a breath. If the sentence outlasts your lung capacity, I can guarantee it is a run-on. The solution is simply to break each thought apart into more than one sentence or to include a proper conjunction (including but, and, or however) and/or punctuation (including comma, semicolon, or period).

Back to Faulkner and his 1,288-word sentence. After all my time and effort in attempting to diagram the sentence, our English professor announced that because Faulkner had written such an extreme run-on sentence, its size and construction made diagramming the sentence impossible. It was a valuable lesson, I suppose. The entire purpose for diagramming sentences is to ensure your writing adheres to fundamental sentence structures. Those of us who had attempted the assignment and turned in a diagram were awarded bonus points for trying. Trust me, it was a hollow victory.

Faulkner’s title as world record holder for the Longest Sentence in Literature has long since been overtaken. His efforts, however, spawned a new literary genre: the one-sentence novel, also known as a stream of consciousness narration. One of the most recent examples of this phenomenon is Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Winner of the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize, the novel consists of over 1,000 pages and a single sentence. 

I doubt seriously that I’ll be reading Ellmann’s book any time soon. In fact, after writing this article, I think I’ll read something like See Spot Run. For old time’s sake, maybe I’ll even diagram it. 

Happy National Punctuation Day.