Dear Language Nerd,
Occasionally when I am writing technical papers, I concentrate so much on the outstanding point that I am making that I write errant run-on sentences. When I (read MS Word editor) spot a suspect run-on, I think to myself “most people won’t recognize it anyway so just leave it.” I like the rush that comes with living life on the edge . . . I’m a rebel that way.
Am I too pretentious and taking too much risk, or am I making a safe assumption? Please help!
This is a question of register, which is the linguist word for the way one person uses different styles of language in different situations. We each have our individual idiolect, the ways we speak and write that are different from how any other person speaks or writes; register is how we vary within our own idiolect. Before we get further into that, though, let’s drop by the definition of a run-on, for those without an MLA handbook in easy reach.
A run-on sentence is two or more regular sentences stuck together. The most common type of run-on is the comma splice, where the sentences are all put together with only commas in between, as in:
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!
You can also have a run-on without commas, which looks like you’re in a terrible hurry:
I scream you scream we all scream because ZOMBIES AAAAHHHHGH!
There are three sentences here, three subjects and three verbs, and by the laws of grammar class we must either toss some conjunctions in there or split them up. Though in this case that certainly looks peculiar:
I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream. How undignified of us.
It’s worth noting that a long sentence is not necessarily a run-on, because you can keep going and going by adding conjunctions, and that doesn’t break any grammar rules, though it isn’t recommended, because conciseness is always valued in writing and because going on for too long without a period-ordained pause leaves the reader feeling breathless.
So where does register come in? Well, everyone who uses English uses it in many different registers. You speak more formally with colleagues than with grandparents, you write more formally in a technical paper than in a facebook status. So that last ice-cream example up there looks peculiar because the first variation is the common one, and it’s in a conversational and informal register. Putting fancier-register rules onto it makes it look weirdly formal, like showing up to the bowling alley in a tuxedo.
The most-studied registers of English are on the sliding scale of formal to informal, but there’s more to it than that. You speak to babies in an informal way, but it’s a specific informal register, and very different from the informal register you might use to talk down your best friend when fury and lust for vengeance overwhelm her better judgment. Particular genres have special registers that are slightly different than any other; formally writing a weather report uses different language than formally writing an epic fantasy novel. And while registers are personal, these genre conventions have a strong influence. Two academic papers by different people usually sound more similar than a letter and an academic paper by the same person. Some genres encourage run-on sentences, and some abhor them.
Technical papers fall into the second camp. The usual register for technical papers has many complex sentences, uses the jargon of the field, and has a formal, business essence. It’s also dominated by fans of formal, academic grammar, which means run-on sentences are not invited, and the audience has a higher-than-normal percentage of people likely to spot them. But your stylistic choices, of course, do not have to be constrained by the usual. And if your personal technical-paper register involves the occasional run-on, well, as long as the run-on makes your point clearer and not vaguer, it may be a risk worth taking.
The formal rule is that a run-on is never acceptable, presumably because a run-on is usually less clear than either a sentence with a conjunction or a group of sentences. A weak writer piling on the run-ons can make an impenetrable lingual labyrinth. However, there are times when they’re useful. I used a comma splice three paragraphs ago because I had a sentence with two halves that mirrored each other. Splitting it into two sentences would have meant losing the rhythm between the two halves, so bam, together they go. And the zombie example shows that a comma-free run-on can give a sentence a certain panicked tone (though that might not be what you’re looking in your technical paper). Grammar serves the writer, not the other way around; if a run-on sentence helps to clarify and organize your ideas for the reader, go for it.
Will readers notice your run-on shenanigans? Sure, maybe. Will they care? Not if they’re busy being dazzled by your outstanding point.
The Language Nerd
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