The Red Pen: Sentence Solutions

The ability to craft beautiful sentences is a rare gift. The ability to wreak grammatical havoc on all things syntactic is, alas, far more common. Here are three common mishaps and a pocketful of solutions to your most common syntax sins.

Offender #1: The Run-On

When you connect independent clauses without punctuation or conjunctions, you’ve got a run-on.

Example: A run-on sentence is grammatically incorrect it should be divided.

Here, I’ve got two separate thoughts: A run-on sentence is grammatically incorrect and it should be divided.

To combine the two correctly, I can do a few things:

  • A run-on sentence is grammatically incorrect. It should be divided. (period, begin new sentence)
  • A run-on sentence is grammatically incorrect, and it should be divided. (comma and conjunction)
  • A run-on sentence is grammatically incorrectit should be divided. (dash for emphasis)

EXCEPTION: You’re James Joyce.

The modernist novel Ulysses put Joyce on the map for stream-of-consciousness writing. It also offended grammarians worldwide for daring to fuse character Molly Bloom’s soliloquizing into 3000-word run-ons. Does Joyce pull it off? Maybe. There’s a reason he’s still topping best book lists a hundred years later.

Offender #2: The Comma Splice

Notice the one thing I didn’t do to correct my run-on above was simply add a comma. That’s because a comma alone cannot connect two independent clauses. You’ll need a comma and a conjunction at the least, but there are other ways to handle this depending on your tone.

Example: Comma splices are grammatically incorrect, you should avoid them.

Here, the two separate thoughts are again evident: Comma splices are grammatically incorrect and you should avoid them.

My options vary. Here’s one way to handle the problem:

  • Comma splices are grammatically incorrect, and you should avoid them. (comma and conjunction)

A semi-colon would also do it:

  • Comma splices are grammatically incorrect; you should avoid them.

If you’re feeling snooty, add a semi-colon with a conjunctive adverb:

  • Comma splices are grammatically incorrect; consequently, you should avoid them.

EXCEPTION: You’re Samuel Beckett.

Another avant-garde Irishman (what is it about the Irish and rule breaking?), Beckett filled grammarians with existential dread when he fused his independent clauses together with commas. He ended one memorably long sentence with this little gem: “I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” The tragicomical absurdity!

Offender #3: The Fragment

This group of words masquerades as a sentence, but isn’t. Perhaps you’ve got a subject, or a verb—one without the other is bad news, syntactically speaking. Even if you’ve got both, you might have an incomplete thought. You’ll catch these little devils best by reading them aloud—and sometimes, reading your work from the end to the beginning will help you see those thought divisions a little more clearly.

Example: I don’t usually make grammatical errors. Such as fragments.

That last bit looks like a sentence, but it’s not a complete thought and it lacks a verb. A number of different revisions are possible, but the most obvious is to remove the period and just add a comma:

  • I don’t usually make grammatical errors, such as fragments.

EXCEPTION: You’re . . . well, a writer.

Fragments—purposeful fragments, that is—are far more acceptable in writing than either run-ons or comma splices. Somewhere, your 5th grade English teacher is cringing, but most writers make use of an intentional fragment or two to great rhetorical effect. The trick is to use them sparingly (and meaningfully) to create emphasis.

Example: I don’t make grammatical errors. Ever.

Here, the word ever is offset as a fragment, giving it prominence and weight.

The Bottom Line: Rules, of course, were made to be broken. However, mastering the basics of syntax is paramount.  Happy sentence crafting!




Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.


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