Article of the Week

Run-On Sentences

Run-on sentences occur when writers try to combine more than one idea into a single sentence. They cause confusion because readers are not sure when one idea ends and the next one begins. Read our entry and test your knowledge with our quiz!



Concise Writing

Sometimes, important writing should be complicated. Difficult ideas often require new, difficult forms of expression. If you’ve ever tried to read scientific theories, classic literature, or philosophy, you’ve probably encountered long, confusing sentences, new words, and new uses for old words.

But powerful writing can also be simple, and the simplest writing has the widest potential audience. Consider this very short story, supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This story packs a lot of emotion into six words. It’s an advertisement from a newspaper. We do not know who placed it, but we do know that this person has lost a baby. We’re also not sure why this person is selling the shoes: are they a painful reminder of loss? Is the family desperate for money? Is that somehow related to the baby’s death? These six words provide endless speculation, not just about the nature of the story, but about a web of human relationships.

 

Here are some tips for keeping your writing brief without robbing it of meaning.

 

1. Two sentences are often better than one.

Writers use compound and complex sentences to connect two separate ideas. However, longer sentences sometimes become very difficult for readers to comprehend. Using several shorter sentences can make these ideas easier to understand.

Incorrect Example: The first day of work at my new job started off disastrously, for not only did I spill hot coffee all over my brand-new tie, but I also managed the get three flat tires during my morning commute, forcing me to call my boss and tell him, in tears, that I was going to be late.

Correct Example:The first day of my new job started off disastrously.  Not only did I spill hot coffee all over my brand-new tie, but I also managed to get three flat tires during my morning commute.  I was forced to call my boss and tell him, in tears, that I was going to be late.

2. Simple words are better than complex ones, unless you need the more precise meaning a complex word provides.

Why write “utilize,” a three-syllable word, when you could instead write “use”? The word “utilize” has more distinct meanings: to invent a new way to use a person or thing, to allocate a resource, or to absorb chemically. Only use “utilize” when those meanings are needed.

Incorrect Example:  I engage in mobile cardiovascular exertion with my canine after ending my nightly period of extended somnolence.

Correct Example:  I walk my dog after waking up.  


3. Place your main subject and verb at the beginning of each sentence.

This rule will have exceptions. For example, you can include an introductory clause to establish context. But if readers can identify the subject and verb at the beginning of the sentence, they will have an easier time following the rest of it.

 

4. Avoid using more than two prepositions per sentence.

Your prepositions establish a new context for information in a sentence, so if you use a lot of them, they can confuse your reader. Instead, you can transform some prepositional phrases into different parts of speech: 

Incorrect Example: The trade of Chris Paul to the Clippers transformed the landscape of sports in L.A. 

We have two prepositional phrases in this sentence "of Chris Paul" and "of sports in L.A." - we need to re-write it so that only one phrase is present in the sentence.

Correct Example:  Chris Paul’s trade to the Clippers transformed L.A.’s sports landscape

 

5. Do your best to avoid jargon, which is the specialized language of a profession or discipline.

Jargon can be useful for displaying your detailed knowledge of the field, but it can alienate other readers. If you really understand a subject, you can – and should – express it plainly.

Incorrect Example:  Strategic military action in hostile territory resulted in the elimination of several key targets with little collateral damage or loss of infrastructure.

Correct Example:  A military raid killed several enemies without harming civilians or destroying important buildings or roads.

 

6. Watch out for “Buried Verbs”—these are verbs that have been buried in longer nouns.

They can lead to longer, harder-to-follow sentences. A popular example is the verb “compel,” which is often buried in “compulsion”:

Buried Verb: Andrea has an eating compulsion.

Uncovered Verb: Hunger compels Andrea to eat.


Buried Verb: My coworker James excels at competition.

Uncovered Verb: My coworker James competes well.

 

7. Use Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method to edit your sentences.

If you are unsure if your writing is as clear as it should be, you are in luck.  Richard Lanham devised a method of editing and condensing that combines many of the above tips:

  • Circle your prepositions and place “is” verbs in boxes. Try to remove as many prepositions as possible to make your action more direct. The same advice applies to “is” verbs, which can often be replaced with action verbs.
  • Identify the doer in the sentence (the person or thing performing an action), and rephrase the sentence to make the doer the subject.
  • Avoid what Lanham called “slow wind-ups”—unnecessarily long beginnings or opening clauses, such as “in this paper. . . .”
  • Eliminate any repeated phrases.