Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Wonderings and Googlings (Wherein I wonder about words, then I Google them)

run-on sentence = 373,000 hits
misplaced modifier = 40,100 hits

I don't believe in run-on sentences. My working theory is that they're bogeymen invented by professional writers in order to scare the crap out of aspiring writers, divert newbies' attention from more important issues like misplaced modifiers, and thereby thin out the competition.

In all my years of copy editing novice writers and reading friends' never-to-be-published novels and memoirs, I've never seen a sentence like: Joe heard footsteps they crunched on the leaves his breathing quickened he broke into a run it was too late the hot breath was on his neck. (Of course, I've never edited Cormac McCarthy, but that's another discussion.)

Nope, the run-on sentence, in my experience, is not a real problem for writers. However, I do frequently come across misplaced and poorly placed modifiers: Wilson took a three-year hiatus in 1994.

The Google search affirms my suspicion: run-on sentences are overhyped.

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LL Blackwell said...

Y'know, even as a high school teacher to English learners, I don't have too much of a problem with run-ons from my students. I guess it'd also be modifiers that aggravate them (or is it just me being aggravated?), since I get many sentences like, "The dogs lying on the grass." And trying to explain that participles aren't verbs but are modifiers is crazy business.

So, I agree. There.

June Casagrande said...

Ah, thank you. I have a tendency to jump the gun on my random "observations." It's the underpaid-and-overworked community news reporter in me: Report it now, let the readers fact check it tomorrow.

(Always reminds me of how Winchester on M*A*S*H whined that "meatball surgery" was destroying his skills. Not that I had finely tuned skills in the first place, but "meatball reporting" definitely molded my skills.

Back on topic: I suspect that run-on sentences -- and comma splices for that matter -- owe their fame to nothing more than catchy names. Perhaps we should dub the modifying participle something like "descriptor-a-go-go." That'll stick in their little brains.

Adrian Morgan said...

I learnt the term "run-on sentence" from Microsoft Word's grammar checker (which I used to use, back in the day). Based on its authority (hah!), I've always understood that a run-on sentence is one that uses a comma where a semicolon or new sentence is required. (Example: "June is a very intelligent person, I know this because of her excellent blog.") It has never occurred to me before now that the term might apply to sentences in which punctuation is missing altogether, though logically I suppose it would.

June Casagrande said...

Good old grammar checker.

Actually, in my neck of the woods, people call that a specific type of run-on a "comma splice."

"8'FED is a very intelligent person I know that because he won a poetry competition." = run-on

"8'FED is a very intelligent person, I know that because he won a poetry competition." = comma splice

I 'spose that comma splices actually do vex writing sometimes. They definitely seem more common to me than the no-comma version. Still, with all the other stuff people don't know about language, both these issues seem like relative wastes of time.


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