What’s a run-on sentence? If you’re like many people, you will answer, “It’s a sentence that just runs on and on.” In other words, it’s a sentence out of control: too long with too many words in it.
Unfortunately, the term itself is misleading. Length is not the problem at all. We have the freedom in English to make a sentence as long or as short as we want as long as it follows certain conventions of structure.
A sentence can be as short as two words: Gerald died. Or it can be as long as several lines or even an entire paragraph: The day he was supposed to fly to England, the birthplace of his ancestors, Gerald died of a heart attack, an event both tragic and ironic according to his niece Carolyn, who had tried for so long to convince him to make the trip, and now his dream of a lifetime would never come true because he had waited too long to make up his mind.
Obviously, too many long, complex sentences grouped together would slow down anyone’s reading speed, so most writers vary their sentence length to make it more enjoyable for the reader. But part of the attraction of English as a language is the infinite variety of patterns which we can use to string words together.
And it’s that endless variety that makes it difficult to clearly define what constitutes a sentence. But here are a few attempts, using a minimum of grammatical terms: (1) A sentence in English is any group of words with a required subject and verb, to which can be added numerous structures that add meaning to the main statement; (2) A sentence is an utterance that makes sense by itself; and (3) As one of my colleagues put it, a period at the end of a sentence signals a place where your mind can rest before going on to the next idea.
So the next time you are tempted to put a period somewhere just because the sentence is beginning to look too long and you are afraid that it is running on and on, or you are so unsure about where a period should go that you just scatter a few commas here and there for looks, you need to stop and read out loud what you have written. Most of the time, your mind will tell you where one idea stops and another starts. Language has meaning, and our minds are trained to look for meaning in what we read. If your writing is not making sense when you read it aloud, then maybe the fault is not in the words, but in the punctuation–or lack of it. A period in the right place can make a huge difference!
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If you have another way of explaining where to put periods or if you have any questions about punctuation, feel free to comment. I’d enjoy hearing from you!