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This Is an Essay on Run-on Sentences[,] and I Hope You Enjoy It

The above is from Jon Fosse's brilliant Septology. My corrections are ironic.

 

First of all, I’d like to forewarn the reader. The following is long—very long—for a blog post. In fact, I’d like to think of this as less of a post than an essay—or, better, a paper (a couple of hundred years ago, we might have called it a pamphlet). In any case, the topic—run-ons and commas—is of such earthshattering importance, and demands such exhaustive comprehensiveness, that I believe I have no choice but to resort to such prolixly.

 

In fact, my editor (Christine) basically said something like: “Honestly, Erik, no one is going to read this endless (though brilliant and important) essay on run-ons. Maybe you should start with the conclusion, which summarizes everything nicely. Interested readers (although likely nonexistent) can read the rest of the essay at their leisure, if they so desire.” (I paraphrase.)

 

I’m not going to start with the conclusion (pace Christine), which feels like arriving at my destination before I’ve left the house. But, while it pains me to say this, if you’re not interested in the minutiae of run-on sentences and would rather I just get to the [fill in your favorite expletive] point, feel free to skip to the conclusion (although I recommend you first review the “What’s a Run-on?” section below).

 

But for those brave souls willing to invest the time, let’s get started . . .

 

One of the most common and, in some ways, controversial corrections I make when I edit has to do with missing commas before coordinating conjunctions in compound sentences. I call these commas “compound commas” (short for compound-sentence commas). Eschewing compound commas creates a kind of run-on sentence.

 

In this post, I’ll define some important terms, state the “rules” of compound commas according to the grammarians, discuss the dangers of breaking these rules, and then introduce possible exceptions to these rules. (For convenience, I’m going to use The Penguin Book of the Modern Short Story, ed. John Freeman (New York: Penguin Press, 2021) for my literary examples (unless stated otherwise).)

 

Definitions

Let’s start with some definitions:

 

clause: A group of words containing a subject and predicate (or verb phrase). I am writing.

 

independent clause: A clause that could be used by itself as a simple sentence but that is part of a larger sentence. I am writing . . .

 

dependent clause: A clause that does not form a simple sentence by itself and that is connected to the main independent clause of a sentence; a subordinate clause. Although I am writing . . .

 

coordinating conjunction: One of the seven conjunctions that can combine two or more clauses to create a compound sentence. Grammarians sometimes use the acronym FANBOYS to remember these: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

 

What’s a Run-on?

Every grammatical sentence must contain at least one independent clause. Compound sentences contain two or more independent clauses. And here, with the compound sentence, is where the run-on rears its solecistic head. A definition:

 

run-on sentence: A sentence containing two or more clauses not connected by the correct conjunction or punctuation.

 

The following are the three possible run-ons: 


  1. comma splice (comma but no conjunction): I talk, she listens. Note that not everyone considers this is a run-on (and not everyone considers it bad grammar). I get into comma splices in great detail here. They are not the focus of this essay.

  2. fused sentence (no conjunction and no comma): I talk she listens. This one happens basically never. I shan’t discuss it further.

  3. comma-less compound (conjunction but no comma): (I talk and she listens).

      

The last of these is the one I find most interesting and, as mentioned, is the focus of this essay. Again, I call this (missing) comma a compound comma. Let me write that officially:

 

compound comma: A comma placed before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence. I talk, and she listens.

 

What Do the “Experts” Say?

The best of the grammar/usage guides have surprisingly little to say, at least explicitly, on these compound commas. Only The Elements of Style and Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage—I should stress: these are two absolute classics of grammar/usage—are unequivocal:

 

The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E. B. White:

In this classic of grammar and style, the authors are clear:


Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause (5).

 

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler:

Fowler, rather concisely, says the comma should not be


omitted between connected but independent sentences [read: independent clauses] (568, “Stops”).

 

The Chicago Manual of Style and Swan’s Practical English Usage are softer in their decrees:

 

The Chicago Manual of Style:


When independent clauses are joined by [a] coordinating conjunction, a comma usually precedes the conjunction. . . . If the clauses are very short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted (§6.22, emphases added).

 

Practical English Usage, Michael Swan:

Note below that Swan requires both clauses to be short if the comma is to be omitted:


Clauses connected with and, but or or are usually separated by commas unless they are very short (461, “Punctuation (4): Comma,” emphases added).

 

The five remaining grammar/usage guides at my disposal (yes, I am a complete grammar nerd) are, as far as I can tell, explicitly silent on the compound comma. But they are implicitly voluminous. I read the prefaces or introductions—logical places to search for what these authors would consider impeccable grammar—and discovered not one comma-less compound. I did, unsurprisingly, discover countless compound sentences that included the compound comma. (I feel obliged to present examples, but trusting (or bored) readers, as much as it pains me to say this, might skip ahead to the next section.)

 

Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner (from the “Preface to the First Edition”):

Here’s one with short clauses:

 

Well, I hope it isn’t mortifying, and for me it’s nothing new (xix).

 

Later, I’ll talk about the tendency for commas to go missing when the subject of both clauses is the same. But here Garner adds the comma:

 

He [H.W. Fowler] shared that quality with Theodore Bernstein and Wilson Follett, but he knew more about linguistics than either of those writers (xxi).

 

Compound sentences with more than two clauses also sometimes lose at least one of the compound commas, but here Garner keeps them in:

 

That knowledge was something he had in common with Bergen Evans, but he had better literary and editorial judgment than Evans, and he was confident in exercising that judgment (xxi).

 

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (from “A Brief History of English Usage”):

Here’s another example with a short second clause:

 

In those days people mostly spelled things the way they sounded, and there was little uniformity indeed (viii).

 

And here’s another with a repeated subject:

 

Lowth apparently derived his notions about the perfect ability of English grammar from Harris, and he did not doubt that he could reduce the language to a system of uniform rules (x).

 

Modern American Usage, Wilson Follett (from “To the Reader”):

 

At many points in the book an entry on a word will refer you to an article, and conversely an article will end with a reference to one or more word entries (vii).

 

I also noticed numerous examples in Follett’s section on “The Sentence” (apropos for my post/essay/paper/pamphlet). For example:

 

At a lecture or in the library we take notes in strings of detached phrases, and with luck we can later interpret the bits and pieces correctly (294).

 

It’s interesting to point out that Follett frequently goes one better with his compounds by using semicolons instead of commas before the coordinating conjunctions; but this, it seems to me, is overkill (and somewhat antiquated).

 

Both Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar and The Cambridge Guide to English Usage offer numerous additional examples, but—perhaps to my readers’ delight, perhaps not—I’ll stop here.

*

So, while the experts don’t always explicitly mention the compound comma, they do, in their own writings, include it. The rule is rarely, if ever, broken:

 

When combining two or more clauses with a coordinating conjunction, include a comma before the conjunction.

 

The Dangers of Comma-less Compounds

Before getting into acceptable uses of comma-less compounds, arguably the most interesting part of this post, I’ll discuss the dangers.

 

Perceived Ignorance

Let me make the following clear: most established writers (and, as we see above, established grammarians) avoid run-ons pretty much 100 percent of the time. The books I read, covering many genres and forms, rarely miss a compound comma. If you’re leaving them out, you’re in a small minority.

 

Thus, since most writers, and basically all grammarians, use compound commas, if you skip them frequently you run the risk of perceived grammatical ignorance. This risk is probably the most common reason I recommend adding the compound comma when I edit. Only a writer who (otherwise) exhibits impeccable grammatical chops, and is writing in either an exaggerated “open” style of punctuation or attempting some kind of experimental or dialectic style, should omit the compound comma. In other words, the omissions should be very clearly intentional.

 

Furthermore, there’s rarely much to lose in including the comma. Consider the following sentence from Tobias Wolff’s classic “Bullet in the Brain” (remember, these examples are from the Penguin book):

 

The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving (222).

 

If the compound comma were missing, I suspect most editors, myself included, would look the other way, or perhaps just add a warning, but including the comma was the safe choice. Wolff knows his grammar, and no one on earth would think otherwise, but he’s still not taking chances.

*

But the above doesn’t explain why the compound comma is important in the first place. There must have been logical reasons, back when the grammar laws were being drawn up, to include these commas, right? I count three of them:

 

Temporary Misreadings

I recently came across the following sentence in an essay in the New York Review of Books:

 

Without this conflict, Saul Bellow wrote, a novel of ideas “is mere self-indulgence and didacticism is simply ax-grinding” (Nathaniel Rich, “Writing Under Fire,” December 21, 2023 issue).

 

As I read this, I assumed that a novel of ideas was two things: “self-indulgence” and “didacticism” (imagine a period after “didacticism”). In other words, I experienced a temporary misreading, and had to, in essence, go back and read that part of the sentence again.

 

Most comma-less compound sentences, especially when “and” is the coordinating conjunction, risk this temporary misreading. Here a few examples:

 

He wrestled with his children and his wife stood idly by.

 

For a moment (and for only a moment, which is why I referred to these misreadings as temporary) the reader might assume that his wife is getting in on the act (He wrestled with his children and his wife).

 

This may seem like nitpicking, but even a brief misreading, especially if there are many of them, can change the reading experience—and, assuming the writer is intending clarity, not in a good way. Things get worse when we incorporate a comma-bound phrase and thus extend the misread:

 

He wrestled with his children and his wife, her blonde hair blowing all around, stood idly by.

 

Again, until we reach the word “stood,” we could read the sentence very differently from its intended meaning (He wrestled with his children and his wife, her blonde hair blowing all around). To correct this run-on, just add the compound comma:

 

He wrestled with his children, and his wife, her blonde hair blowing all around, stood idly by.

 

The comma, with its implied pause, efficiently signals to the reader (or listener, for that matter) that a new clause is starting at “his wife.”

 

Ambiguity

Compare the following two sentences (note the comma in the second):

 

He wrestled with his children after he got home from work and his wife completed a crossword puzzle.

 

He wrestled with his children after he got home from work, and his wife completed a crossword puzzle.

 

In the first example, we assume that the clause “his wife completed a crossword puzzle” is part of the dependent clause that begins with “after he got home”:

 

1. He wrestled with his children after

a. he got home from work and

b. his wife completed a crossword puzzle.

 

In the second example, which is a compound sentence, we assume the two clauses hold equal weight:

 

1. He wrestled with his children after he got home from work,

2. and his wife completed a crossword puzzle.

 

Let me explain this better. The first sentence includes one independent clause and one dependent (subordinate) clause:

 

independent clause: “He wrestled with his children" 

dependent (subordinate) clause: “after he got home from work and his wife completed a crossword puzzle.”

 

He got home, waited for his wife to complete the puzzle, and then wrestled with his children.

 

The second sentence has two independent clauses of equal weight (the first with a subordinate clause):

 

first independent clause: “He wrestled with his children after he got home from work”

second independent clause: “his wife completed a crossword puzzle.”

 

You may think I’m going too far with this, but it’s important to stress:

 

These two sentences have different meanings!

 

In the first, he wrestled after his wife completed the puzzle. In the second, as far as we can tell, he wrestled while his wife completed the puzzle. If this writer fails to consistently use the compound comma, we can’t be sure exactly which meaning is intended.

 

Inconsistency

There is a risk in omitting the compound comma insofar as it begs the questions: Should the writer avoid all compound commas? And if not all of them, where should the writer draw the line?

 

This was something I came across frequently in one of the three stories in the Penguin book that often left out the compound commas. In “Anyone Can Do It” by Manuel Muñoz, note the missing compound comma in the story’s second sentence (before the emboldened “and”):

 

It was a Friday when the men didn’t come home from the fields and, true, sometimes the men wouldn’t return until late, the headlights of the neighborhood worktruck turning the corner, the men drunk and laughing from the bed of the pickup (449).

 

This story is largely written in a kind of stylistic dialect—hence the surfeit of comma-less compounds—and I also think Muñoz is trying to disorient his readers right out of the gate. So be it. But we wonder why he adds the compound comma in the sentence below, just a couple of pages later:

 

She had not told this woman that she was from Texas, and she began to wonder what her husband might have said to the other men in the worktruck . . . (451)

 

I don’t have a good explanation for this. I suppose there is a line a writer might draw—probably by considering likelihood of misreadings or lengths of clauses—but it’s often a fine one. When a writer chooses to leave out some compound commas, inconsistencies can be hard to avoid.

 

“Acceptable” Comma-less Compounds

I’ve covered the official rules for compound commas and explored the possible dangers of leaving them out. Now, finally, let’s get into what I would consider acceptable compound comma omissions.

 

Short and Closely Related

As I mentioned above (The Chicago Manual of Style and Swan’s Practical English Usage), some grammarians explicitly allow comma-less compounds when the two clauses are short (especially the second clause). I’ll also add to this that the two clauses should be closely related.

 

Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible” is another story in the Penguin Book written in a casual, somewhat dialectical style. Below are a few examples of short clauses missing compound commas:

 

I soon became part-owner and of course there was no stopping me then (41).

 

Later on he woke up and we started driving again (42).

 

Once I was in the same room and I heard his teeth click at something (45).

 

These sentences are fine, mainly because (trust me) the stylistic intent of the author is clear. Additionally, there’s really no—or very little—risk of ambiguity or temporary misreadings. And note how the clauses in each sentence are closely related.

 

Often in these short comma-less compounds the subject is repeated, as we saw in the third example above (“I was . . . and I heard . . .”). Below is an example from Junot Díaz’s “Fiesta, 1980,” another story written in stylistic dialect:

 

She sits straight and even in a crowd she stands out, smiling quietly like maybe she’s the one everybody’s celebrating (185–6).

 

(Note: I, at the risk of pettifoggery, can’t help but point out the potential for a temporary misreading, since one can sit “straight and even”; an added comma after “straight” would have clarified the start of a new clause.)

 

Here’s one more from the same story:

 

Maybe he was thinking about that Puerto Rican woman or maybe he was just happy that we were all together (176).

 

The two clauses above also echo, something I’ll discuss further below.

 

More* Than Two Clauses (for Stylistic Effect)

When writers construct compounds with more than two clauses, they’re often going for a kind of stylistic effect (see “polysyndeton” in my first style essay on sentences). The missing compound commas often exaggerate this effect.

 

Lucia Berlin’s “Silence” is another story written in a somewhat dialectical style (“My mother slapped me whack whack”), which is reflected in the lack of punctuation and other numerous grammatical errors, all clearly intentional; there are tons of comma-less compounds in this one. Berlin also writes in a fairly open punctuational style (more on this below). Here are a couple of good examples of comma-less compounds with more than two clauses:

 

I got scared and pushed her and she fell down and I got expelled (190).

 

You walk down a street, past houses and yards, and sometimes in the evening you can see people eating or sitting around and it’s a lovely glimpse of how people live (192).

 

Here’s an example from the Erdich story (“The Red Convertible”). Note how the syntax reflects the content:

 

We started off toward the Little Knife River and Mandaree in Fort Berthold and then we found ourselves down in Wakpala somehow and then suddenly we were over in Montana on the Rocky Boys and yet the summer was not even half over (41).

 

I notice that writers frequently use exactly one compound comma when writing multiple clauses, separating the clause that is least related to the other two:

 

It wasn’t long before I was promoted to busing tables, and then the short-order cook quit and I was hired to take her place (Louise Erdrich, “The Red Convertible,” 40).

 

I climbed up after him and tried it myself but I was too young to hang on long, and I fell heavily to the ground, dizzy and giggling (Dorothy Allison, “River of Names,” 150).

 

I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie (Lucia Berlin, “Silence,” 193).

 

Open Style of Punctuation

Some writers use an especially “open” style of punctuation, which basically means they leave commas out whenever the risk of ambiguity or misreading is low. These missing commas typically show up around prepositional or participial phrases (adverbial or adjectival), especially at the beginnings of sentences; after short opening dependent clauses; and between coordinate adjectives.

 

Below are a few examples of an open style of punctuation from Berlin’s “Silence.” First, a missing comma after an opening adverbial phrase:

 

When there were fifteen minutes left the librarian let us know, so we could check out a book (189).

 

This one has missing commas between coordinate adjectives:

 

Sammy pulled up in the old blue open car . . . (193).

 

Finally, here’s a missing comma after an opening dependent clause:

 

While I was finishing the cereal he asked me if Grandpa had been bothering me. (196)

 

My point (to return to the topic at hand) is that leaving these commas out creates an open effect that helps justify—or at least match, in a stylistic way—missing compound commas. The missing compound commas simply “seem” less wrong when the writing is punctuationally open; they become a part of the overall style.

 

Open writing often creates a flowing, and sometimes disorienting effect. I say disorienting: that comma, which is usually intended to help ease the reading experience, may be kept out to obfuscate the reader, to force the reader to hesitate, to go back, to reread. The open style can be taken to extremes. Consider this sentence from Gertrude Stein (cited in The Oxford Book of Exile, ed. John Simpson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)):

 

It is very natural that every one who makes anything inside themselves that is makes it entirely out of what is in them does naturally have to have two civilizations (175).

 

As is often the case in issues of grammar and usage, intent—or I should say: perceived intent—is critical. If a reader believes that a writer is clearly creating this stylistic effect—if there is no question at all about intent—then that writer is free to take punctuational (and other) liberties, including leaving out compound commas.

 

Dialect or Colloquial Language

All three stories in the Penguin book that employ numerous comma-less compounds are written in a stylistic dialect—that is, with language meant to mirror any number of linguistic groups: a child or very young adult, a non-native speaker of English, a provincial or rustic (person), someone who speaks in slang or argot, etc.

 

For most writers I counsel against strong dialect. Two reasons: (1) it’s very, very hard to get right and stay consistent, especially if the writer is not part of the group being linguistically portrayed (there are arguably other risks in this case, as well), and (2) it risks dating the piece; few writers (successfully) write in dialect these days. So my prima facie advice for most writers is to avoid it.

 

But, clearly, using the Penguin book as our guide, some writers use dialect and colloquial language to marvelous effect:

 

I’ll start with Berlin’s “Silence”:

 

I lived in the slums and there was something particularly unacceptable about my hair (188).

 

Once at recess I took a drink from a garden hose and the teacher grabbed it from me, told me I was common (188–9).

 

Home was bad and school was bad (190).

 

Here’s an example from Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible.” Note that this one, besides sounding dialectical, includes four clauses:

 

I had it all and I lost it quick, but before I lost it I had every one of my relatives, and their relatives, to dinner and I also bought that red Olds I mentioned, along with Stephan (41).

 

Here’s one more from Muñoz’s “Anyone Can Do It”:

 

She had very small eyes that she squinted as if in embarrassment and Delfina wondered if she needed glasses but was too afraid to say (458).

 

Echoing Clauses

Finally, when the syntax of the two clauses is identical, or nearly so—that is, when the two clauses echo—the comma might be omitted. Here’s an example from Lydia Davis’s brilliantly titled story “Story.” Note the syntactical echo, “He stands . . . I stand . . .”:

 

He stands with his back against a garage door and his face in the light and I stand in front of him with my back to the light (71).

 

Here’s one from Percival Everett’s “The Fix.” Again, there’s an echo (“Beside his shop . . . above his shop . . .”):

 

Beside his shop was a seldom-used alley and above his shop lived a man by the name of Sherman Olney . . . (292).

 

I also think clauses can echo when they recount sensory descriptions of a scene, as we see here in Muñoz’s “Anyone Can Do It”:

 

The afternoon heat swallowed the houses and by evening, some of the shadows resumed their evening watch . . . (459).

 

I’d still add a comma to this one, mainly because there’s the potential for a temporary misreading (the afternoon heat might have swallowed more than just the houses). Feels to me like a needless risk—but, again, Muñoz’s whole piece is written dialectically.

 

Conclusion

Clearly, as exemplified by some of the best writers in the English language, the comma-less compound is not always wrong. If a writer is clearly going for stylistic effect—especially the use of polysyndetic, multi-clause sentences, an open style of punctuation, or dialectical language—then the compound commas can frequently be omitted. And we’ve seen how short, closely related clauses or those that echo can sometimes be left comma-less.

 

But, as discussed, there are risks. For the vast majority of writers, particularly those not going for an exaggerated style with their prose, the missing commas will seem exactly that: missing. It takes a lot of work to convince a reader of your intent, and to also display the sort of grammatical mastery necessary to send the message: I know there’s supposed to be a comma here (according to tradition and the grammarians), but I’m choosing to leave it out.

 

So, thus, in most cases, I will continue to recommend the use of compound commas. But note the exceptions above, and if you start omitting them, do so with deliberation and exuberance. We thank the grammar gods for the rules, because without these rules, we wouldn’t have things to break.

 

 

Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, South Carolina Review, Yemassee (Cola Literary Review), Blood Orange Review, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and many others, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. He has published a novella from Buttonhook Press.


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*A strict grammarian would insist on “greater” here, since the clauses are countable, but it just sounds weird to my ear. So for those who accuse me of militant prescriptivism, take that!

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