Run-on Sentences vs. Sentence Length


In a post I once wrote about adverbs, I mentioned our media-driven culture of quick sound bites and 140-character limitations that affect the way we communicate with words. I’ve also been hearing for years that sentence length in literature has been on a shortening trend for quite some time, 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.

Now, beyond works that are intended for beginning readers, I don’t think that sentences in books necessarily have to or should be mostly one length or another, or, again, that one length is inherently “better” than another. Including different sentence lengths within or among works makes for creative writing and interesting reading.

Nevertheless, as I’ve written this post chiefly to address the topic of run-on sentences, I’ll stop here. 🙂

Meet Nadine C. Keels

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Classic Book

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

The Portrait of LadyThe Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

She had turned away, but in the movement she had stopped herself and dropped her gaze upon him. The two remained a while in this situation, exchanging a long look–the large, conscious look of the critical hours of life.

This is the first novel I read by Henry James, and I was utterly fascinated by it. Not only by Isabel’s complex story, which I did enjoy, but by the way in which James told the story with such a command of English. To an extent which I hadn’t experienced before reading James’s writing, I became unafraid of words, even ones that are woven together in lengthy sentences, multiple-page-long paragraphs, or coupled with a number of adverbs. The detail of ideas was engaging, and I found nothing dull or drudging about learning these characters in-depth.

I understand the importance of brevity in literature where brevity is required, but in a society of increasing sound bites and 140-character limitations, I also appreciate the chance to be able to delve into the breadth and magnificence of words, in writing like James’s, to realize something beyond life’s surface layers.

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