What’s a Run-on Sentence?

Run-on sentences are serious errors. If there’s a run-on in one of your reports, very likely your supervisor will point it out to you. If a run-on finds its way into other professional writing, it could damage your reputation.

So – what’s a run-on sentence, and how do you avoid this error? There’s good news: it’s easy. Write short sentences. Start each one with a person, place, or thing. End each one with a period. You’ll never write another run-on!

Let’s begin by looking at a police report that was in the news recently. While Joseph Trillo was running for governor of Rhode Island, journalists found a 1975 police report about an alleged attack on a 13-year-old boy. You can read the story and police report here. (Trillo lost the election.)

There are several long sentences in the report. Here’s one of them:

[Trillo] stated the youth kept on yelling out, “fuck this and fuck that” every other word was “fuck and he stated this was very upsetting to his wife and he went over and spoke with the subject and he stated when he was speaking with X he did have a tub of caulking compound in his hand and he was waving it at the youth however at no time did he strike the youth.

That’s a 74-word sentence. Too long! But it’s important to note that it doesn’t become a run-on until the very end. Grammatically speaking, the only problem is this part of the sentence:

however at no time did he strike the youth.

However is not a joining word. It starts a new sentence. So it should have been written like this:

However, at no time did he strike the youth.  CORRECT

But let’s go back to my point that the sentence is too long. Much too long. The best writers don’t string sentences together with and…and…and. What you do is write short, crisp sentences. They’re easy to write – and easy to read.

So here’s my version:

[Trillo] stated the youth kept on yelling out, “fuck this and fuck that.” Every other word was “fuck.” This was very upsetting to his wife. Trillo spoke with the subject. Trillo had a tub of caulking compound in his hand. He was waving it at the youth. However, at no time did he strike the youth.  CORRECT

My version is easier to follow – and it’s shorter (56 words instead of 74). Because police officers are busy men and women, one important goal is to do paperwork efficiently.

Here’s another suggestion: write Trillo’s statement as a list. You can do this when all the information comes from one person.

Trillo told me:

  •  the youth kept on yelling out, “fuck this and fuck that”
  • every other word was “fuck”
  • This was very upsetting to Trillo’s wife
  • Trillo had a tub of caulking compound in his hand
  • he was waving it at the youth
  • at no time did he strike the youth

* * * * *

I said earlier that many people mistakenly think that any long sentence is a run-on. Not true! So – what’s a run-on sentence?

It’s a sentence that needs a period:

John arrived early he waited outside.  INCORRECT

The cut was bleeding it needed medical attention.  INCORRECT

The boy fell I helped him get up.  INCORRECT

How do you fix a run-on? With a period:

John arrived early. He waited outside.  CORRECT

The cut was bleeding. It needed medical attention.  CORRECT

The boy fell. I helped him get up.  CORRECT

Now let me give you a trick. How do you know that you need a period? (It’s never correct to use a comma to fix a run-on sentence.) Very simple: A sentence starts with a person, place, or thing. (Incidentally, it is a thing, and it starts a new sentence.)

Try these. Can you find the run-on sentences? (Answers below.)

Children love Halloween, they enjoy dressing up in costumes.

I had a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch twice last week.

Bill is great with dogs and helps train our department’s canines.

Gretchen is moving Connecticut will be her new home.

Here are the answers. (I used bold to mark the person-place-or-thing that begins a new sentence.)

Children love Halloween. They enjoy dressing up in costumes.

I had a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch twice last week.

Bill is great with dogs and helps train our department’s canines.

Gretchen is moving. Connecticut will be her new home.

Joseph Trillo at a microphone

   Joseph Trillo

 

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