Being a writer and editor can be exhausting. Not “I’ve just run the Boston marathon in two hours” exhausting, but “It’s 5 p.m. and I’ve lost the ability to form words” exhausting.
Nothing wears me down quicker than run-on sentences. Lately, it seems every document I’m asked to edit is overrun with run-ons.
Run-on sentences contain too many ideas and not enough punctuation. Not all long sentences are run-on sentences. It is perfectly acceptable to join several related ideas in one compound sentence, as long as the correct elements (commas, conjunctions, colons, or semicolons) are used. Run-on sentences exhaust readers, making it difficult for them to determine where one idea stops and another starts.
Unfortunately, run-on sentences are rampant in corporate writing. We spend countless hours breaking them up, but what if we didn’t have to break them up? What if the sentences were so well written, they worked as run-ons? After all, many great authors—including Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway—have used run-on sentences. William Faulkner once wrote an 1,800-word sentence. Victor Hugo wrote an 800-word sentence.
Below are some famous sentences from literature that are so well written that it doesn’t matter that they’re run-ons.
Here are some examples, with the original punctuation left intact:
• “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of the noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
• “It was all very well to say ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to that in a hurry. ‘No, I’ll look first,’ she said, ‘and see whether it’s marked “poison” or not’; for she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison,’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.”
Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”
• “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
J. D. Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye”
• “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man And The Sea”
• “Clare takes my hand, and we stand together, in the crowd, and if there is a God, then God, let me just stand here quietly and inconspicuously, here and now, here and now.”
Audrey Niffenegger, “The Time Traveler’s Wife”
• “Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world.”
Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”
For other examples of intentional run-on sentences, see “One Sentence Love Story” and “The Most Excruciating Run-on Sentence in the History of the Internet.”
Ragan readers, care to share any other examples run-on sentences, good or bad?
Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.