Run-on Sentences vs. Sentence Length

Black and white illustration of a hand holding an old-fashioned writing pen

I’ve been hearing for years that sentence length in literature has been on a shortening trend, even before social media was around. (Here’s just one discussion about that.)

While I, especially as a fan of pre- to mid-twentieth-century and classic literature, do enjoy my share of long sentences with a lot of great words to go with short sentences with a few great words, this post isn’t an argument about which sentence length is “better” for modern literature. What could be deemed as a better sentence length is relative, often a matter of an author’s purpose and intended audience, marketing matters, genre considerations, as well as a reader’s personal preferences and reading (skill) level.

However, I wish to point out that run-on sentences can be long or short and are determined by an improper use or lack of punctuation or conjunctions, not by sentence length.

A complete sentence, or an independent clause, includes a subject and a predicate. If a sentence has more than one independent clause without the necessary punctuation or conjunction(s) to connect them, it’s a run-on sentence.


Sentence: I read. “I” is the subject, “read” is the predicate. It’s an independent clause, a complete sentence.

Run-on Sentence: I read he reads. “I read” and “he reads” are two independent clauses. They need a conjunction and/or proper punctuation to connect them.

Run-on Sentence: I read, he reads. A comma alone is not the proper punctuation to connect two independent clauses. This grammar error is called a comma splice, which is common in run-on sentences.

Sentence: I read; he reads. These two independent clauses are connected with a semicolon. It’s a complete sentence.

Sentence: I read, and he reads. These two independent clauses are connected with a comma and a conjunction. It’s a complete sentence.

Generally, the more words that a sentence includes, the more complex it becomes, and sentence complexity is a factor that determines a work’s reading level. The longer a sentence gets, the harder it may be to understand or follow, but it does not become a run-on sentence merely because it may be “flowery” or have “too many words.” When punctuation and conjunctions are in the correct places, a sentence can go on indefinitely without being a run-on sentence.

Including different sentence lengths within a work makes for creative writing and interesting reading.

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7 thoughts on “Run-on Sentences vs. Sentence Length

  1. A Writing Guide says:

    Overall this has me thinking about sentence length in general and how it’s changed. I may have to do some research into this.


    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      It’s intriguing. I’ve seen statistics here and there on the subject of trends in sentence complexity and the like that have changed through the centuries, and I often see related stylistic differences between the classic and the more contemporary literature that I read, but I’ve not done a formal study on the changes.


    • A Writing Guide says:

      I’ve actually been spending a few hours looking into it now. Sometime tomorrow I’ll organize what I’ve found and put it in a blog post. As an overview thought it seems to be a cultural thing for contemporary works.

      For difference in time and not culture I’d say it’s been brought about by stylistic rules in conventional US literature. Though I expect that many stylistic rules are arbitrary conventions. The dislike of adverbs, for instance.

      I have a theory that most rules of writing style are just rules to “not do things the way our enemies do them”. So when the modernists rose to power around 1930, they looked at 19th century literature with its adverbs, long sentences, flowery language, long introductions and languid pacing, and said, “You must eliminate adverbs, eliminate purpose prose, write short punchy sentences, get immediately to the point of the story, and keep the pace moving fast!”


  2. booksformks says:

    Great post! I’ve often been told by misguided people that I’ve written a run-on sentence when that isn’t the case. It may be long, but I’m always careful to make sure that it makes sense and is grammatically correct with the right punctuation. Thank you for vindicating my long sentences!


    • Nadine C. Keels says:

      Aw, gee. 🙂 I know the feeling, Kailey! I also consider that there are so many fine points to the English language, it seems the more I learn them, the more points I find I haven’t mastered. However, as complex sentences are something that I do enjoy encountering in literature, and I’ve been seeing more of their confusion with run-on sentences, I figured I could at least say a little something on the topic. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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