Commas? Dashes? How To Bring Run-On Sentences To A Stop

Every writer has a story to tell. But if you want your writing to be published and read by an appreciative audience, it’s important that you say it -- and write it -- well. Good writing skills begin with the very bones of your work: the sentence structure.

Some of you may feel that you’ve mastered sentence structure and to you we say, Kudos! All erudite, veteran authors have permission to move on to amusing cat videos and celebrity news. Of course, you can stay if you’d like, but no throwing spitballs from the back of the room.

Sentence anatomy 101: Avoid run-ons

One of the most basic sentence structure errors is the run-on sentence. Do we mean sentences that go on and on ad infinitum, leaving you gasping for breath by the time you reach the far-off period at the end? Not necessarily -- structure, not length, determines whether a sentence is a run-on.

A common example of a run-on sentence is the comma splice. A comma splice occurs when a writer links -- or splices -- independent clauses together using only a comma. This is not what commas are meant to do! Example: The bowl is empty, Priya’s granola is missing.

Poor Priya! She was looking forward to her healthy snack. So how do we correct this? First, Priya should never leave her food unattended. Second, we can fix the comma splice in one of the following ways:

1. Add a coordinating conjunction after the comma.

The bowl is empty, and Priya’s granola is missing.

2. Replace the comma with a coordinating conjunction. The bowl is empty and Priya’s granola is missing.

3. Replace the comma with a semicolon, dash, or colon (depending on the particular sentence). The bowl is empty; Priya’s granola is missing.

4. Turn the compound sentence into two separate sentences.

The bowl is empty. Priya’s granola is missing.

What about simply removing the comma? While you will no longer have a comma splice, you’ll still have a run-on sentence, albeit one with a different problem. You’ll have a fused sentence: independent clauses joined with no punctuation in between.

Example: Joanna wanted granola she found some in the fridge.

Fortunately, the fixes for a fused sentence are the same as those for a comma splice. You can separate the independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction; use a coordinating conjunction alone; insert a semicolon, dash, or colon; or make two separate sentences.

Example: Joanna wanted granola and she found some in the fridge.

If you want to get fancy-schmancy, you can add a conjunctive adverb after the semicolon or change one of the independent clauses into a dependent clause.

Example: Joanna wanted granola; finally, she found some in the fridge.

However, the basic solutions we already mentioned will do the job just as well.

Now, some of you experienced writers are probably sitting on the edge of your seats, spitballs at the ready. Wait! You shout at your computer screen, aren’t there times when a comma splice is acceptable?

Yes. A comma splice is acceptable in certain circumstances:

  • If the clauses are short and alike in form. For example: I came, I saw, I conquered.
  • In poetic writing
  • In dialogue

By carefully proofreading your work and watching for run-on sentences, comma splices, and other sentence structure errors, you’ll improve your basic writing skills -- and, ultimately, your stories.