Writing Tips: How to Avoid Run-On Sentences and Sentence Fragments

Possibly the most common English grammar problem people have in business writing is what I think of as "the curse of the run-on sentence." I have clients who send me material filled with run-on sentences.
A run-on sentence does exactly what its name suggests; it "runs on" too long. In fact, it's a mistake to think of a run-on sentence as expressing one thought. What they actually are is two or more sentences strung together with improper punctuation.
York University's Bethune College Writing Centre is a good online English grammar rules resource for determining how run-on sentences work. Here's one simple example of a short, but run-on sentence that I quite like, from their website:

"Gordon laughed at Sandy's joke it was lewd."

Leaving aside the fact that I would never make a lewd joke, (joke!), with the necessary punctuation, the sentence would correctly read:

"Gordon laughed at Sandy's joke; it was lewd."

In this example, the semi colon takes the place of the word "and," joining the two independent sentences together.

Why, you may ask, should run-on sentences be viewed as a "curse?" Here's why: If the sentence turns out to be quite a bit longer than the one that is used in the above example of a run-on sentence and there isn't correct punctuation or maybe it's just that there's too many individual sentences crammed into one it becomes confusing.

Have I made it clear?

If you're someone who suffers the curse of the run-on sentence, you may be wondering at this point how best to escape your fate. Really, it's not that difficult. Simply look at your run on sentences, and incorporate one of the following English grammar rules into your business communications:

  1. Create two sentences
  2. Use a semi-colon
  3. Use a subordinating conjunction
  4. Use commas, colons or dashes. (Correctly, of course!)
English grammar rule #4 may make you ask, "okay, but how do I use commas, etc. correctly." You may want to delve a little deeper into the matter through the many online resources that are ready available.
Now a quick word about sentence fragments. Like this one. Sentence fragments are easily identified because they're incomplete thoughts that cannot stand by themselves. Complete sentences, at the very least, have a subject and a verb. Here's an example:
Incorrect: All of these rules and regulations should be made aware of.
Correct: Clients should be made aware of all these rules and regulations.
It's true there is a time and a place for sentence fragments - in blog posts, possibly. Blogging is a style of writing that's less formal than business writing generally is. But when it comes to basic business communication, even in this day and age of tweeting and emailing and texting, there is still an expectation that correct English grammar and punctuation rule.
Are you suffering from "the curse of the run on sentence?" Then be sure to follow the four rules listed above.
Dr. Sandra Folk is a Toronto-based educational consultant and award-winning university lecturer. She set up The Language Lab to help business executives and employees write and express themselves more effectively. Find out more about the programs we offer to improve the communication skills of native English speakers and ESL learners at http://thelanguagelab.ca/
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