What Is a Run-On Error?A run-on error is a common writing mistake caused by using inappropriate punctuation at the end of a sentence. Most run-on errors involve writers putting a comma at the end of a sentence and then writing another closely related sentence.
Once you have written a sentence, you must end it with appropriate punctuation such as a period (full stop), an exclamation mark, or a question mark (if it's a question). You cannot put a comma and write another sentence. This is the most common mistake involving commas. It is called a run-on error.
An example of a run-on error:
- I like clowns, they can be scary though. (This should be two sentences. The comma is wrong. This is an example of a run-on error. You might also see the term "comma fault" or "run-on sentence".)
- I like clowns. They can be scary though.
- I like clowns; they can be scary though.
- I like clowns — they can be scary though.
- I like clowns ... they can be scary though.
A sentence can also end in a question mark (?), or an exclamation mark (!). If we're being really pedantic, it could also end in a speech mark (provided there's a period, question mark, or exclamation mark inside), but it definitely can't end in a comma.
Examples of Run-On ErrorsHere are some more examples of run-on errors:
- Pick up a copy of our free brochure, this explains how to contact us and reach our showroom. (This should be written as two sentences. You cannot put a comma after "brochure" and carry on writing.)
- It's not true that I had nothing on, I had the radio on. (Actress Marilyn Monroe)
- Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men, the other 999 follow women. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
- Be kind to those that meet you as you rise, you may pass them again as you fall.
- This suspense is terrible, I hope it will last. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
- Duty is what one expects from others, it is not what one does oneself. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
- When will I learn? The answers to life's problems aren't at the bottom of a bottle, they're on TV. (Homer Simpson)
Examples of Sentences without Run-On ErrorsThe trick to avoiding the run-on error is to keep your discipline with what constitutes a sentence. Here are some examples of sentences that too many people would reproduce with run-on errors.
- I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself. (Irish poet Oscar Wilde)
- Please don't eat me! I have a wife and kids. Eat them! (Homer Simpson)
- Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
- Drink is the curse of the land. It makes you fight with your neighbor. It makes you shoot at your landlord, and it makes you miss him. (Of course, it is possible to put a comma and a conjunction ("and" in this example) and carry on writing. This is not an error. It is extremely common.)
- Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough. (Groucho Marx)
Why Is the Run-on Error So Common?Writers often feel that a comma is more appropriate than a period (full stop) because their sentences are so closely related. In other words, they sense that a period is too abrupt because they haven't finished expressing their idea. Once you have formed a sentence (i.e., expressed a complete concept), you must put a period or another valid ending (like ! or ?). Do not insert a comma and continue writing. This is a common mistake.
Other OptionsOccasionally, it may be appropriate to use a semicolon, a dash, or three dots (ellipsis) to extend a sentence instead of putting a period and writing a second sentence. For example:
- Duty is what one expects from others; it is not what one does oneself.
- Please do not shoot the pianist — he is doing his best.
- The answers to life's problems aren't at the bottom of a bottle ... they're on TV.