Category Archives: run-ons

Teaching kids to identify two kinds of run-ons

Not recognizing run-on sentences is a common problem among the middle school students I tutor.  Two categories of run-ons are the most common:  those using a comma instead of a period or semicolon to separate clauses, and those whose second clause starts with a pronoun.


Run-ons which use a comma as the punctuation to separate the two clauses are sometimes called “comma splices.”  Here are a few examples:

  • August runs to his homeroom, no one wants to sit next to him.
  • Julian bullies August every day, Julian even starts the “plague.”
  • August forgives Jack later, Jack says “sorry” to him.

I have tried using sentence grammar to make students see that sentences like these are run-ons.  But that doesn’t work.  The most effective way I have found is to have the student say aloud the clause before the comma.  “Does that sound like a sentence?” I ask.  The student usually knows if it sounds like a sentence or if it sounds “funny.”  Then I have the student say aloud the second clause.  Again I ask if that sounds like a sentence.  We do this over and over.

Run-ons which begin the second clause with a pronoun are another kind I often see.  Some examples are

  • The meanest of all is Julian he puts mean notes in August’s locker.
  • Jack’s friends help them escape they become friends with August.
  • August runs away he has been betrayed by one of his friends.

I ask students who often write run-ons to look for pronouns in the middle of a sentence.  “Read aloud what comes before the pronoun.”  They do.  “Does it sound like a sentence.”  It does.  “Now read the part that starts with the pronoun.  Does it sound like a sentence?”  It does.

For students to identify run-ons this way, they must know what a pronoun is.  Sometimes one or two lessons on identifying pronouns must precede lessons on run-ons.

Students pay attention more when the examples come from their own writing or when the sentences contain their names or those of their friends.

Coherence, the most important element in writing

Writing well requires following certain steps in sequence:

  • Narrowing your topic
  • Organizing your information, including writing an overarching topic sentence or thesis and subtopic sentences or plot lines
  • Writing a first draft
  • Revising, revising, revising
  • Editing

Once your first draft is complete, revising becomes most important.  So many tasks comprise revising—checking for complete sentences, tightening wordiness, analyzing ideas for logic, honing vocabulary, fixing grammar errors, adding figures of speech and style.  Students wonder where to begin.

Begin with coherence, the most important element of writing.  Coherence means making sure all your sentences make sense and flow from one to another.  Coherence means making sure your readers understand what you mean—easily, at first read, without an interpreter.

How do you do that?  Some ways include:

  • Make sure every sentence in the body paragraphs supports the thesis. If you use an anecdote, make sure it is an example of the ideas in the thesis.  If you use a simile or metaphor, make sure it fits with the topic.  If the topic is igneous rock, for example, the simile “as hot as the steam from a steam boat” is off topic, whereas “as hot as a lava lake” is on topic.
  • If you use numbers (three kinds of rocks, five members of my family, one favorite memory), check that you have named all the numbers and no more.
  • Use logical transitions. “Because” means something causes something else.  Make sure you have named a cause and an effect if you use “because.”  “Finally” means the last one in a series or the last point.  If you have only two or three points, you shouldn’t use “finally.” You should use “secondly,” or “next,” or “third.”
  • If you use a pronoun, make sure you have named the noun the pronoun refers back to. And make sure you have named that noun before you use the pronoun (not “When she fell, Mary broke her arm,” but “When Mary fell, she broke her arm.”  If you use “this,” make sure your reader can know in a word or phrase what “this” refers to.  If “this” is vague or complicated, add a noun after “this” (this situation, this erosion, this loss of interest).  If you have two women talking, make sure if you use “she,” the reader knows which one you are referring to.  Otherwise, use her name or title or position.
  • Check that your sentences are complete thoughts–not fragments or run-ons.  Make sure your complex sentences contain no more than two dependent clauses so readers needn’t hold multiple ideas in their minds at once.  Check that your sentences vary in length, with most more than ten and fewer than 20 words.
  • Change your weak, vapid verbs to active, dynamic verbs.  Eliminate the verb “to be” and passive voice verbs.

If what you write lacks coherence, no matter how specific the vocabulary, no matter how beautiful the description, no matter how lofty your aim, your writing will flop.  Your writing must make sense to a reader without you standing at her elbow explaining, “Well, what I mean is. . .”

Nine tips I’ve learned from teaching the writing parts of the SAT and ACT

  1. A rewritten phrase or clause with the word “being” in it is almost always wrong. Perplexed student writing
  2. Shorter versions of rewritten grammar are usually the correct answers.  If in doubt, choose the shortest or second shortest answer.
  3. Hard to spot run-on sentences often have a comma in the middle of the sentence followed by a subject pronoun.   The comma needs to be  a period, or a semicolon.  Or you need to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma.
  4. If you have one dash, you need two dashes unless the sentence ends where the second dash would be.
  5. In lists or series, the important words must be the same part of speech such as all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, or all gerunds.
  6. “It’s” means it is. “Its” means something belongs to it.  Its’ is not a word.
  7. “They’re” means they are. “Their” means something belongs to them.  “There” means over there or that something exists.  All three begin with “the.”  Thier is not a word.
  8. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions, not after unless what follows the conjunction is nonessential information.
  9. Third person singular verbs (the kind you use with “he,” “she,” or “it” as the subject) in the present tense end in an “s.”

How to teach students to overcome run-ons

One of the most common writing mistakes students make is run-on sentences.

There are several types of run-on sentences.

  • A run-on can be two independent clauses connected by a comma (sometimes called a comma splice) such as “I ate an ice cream cone, it tasted good.”
  • A run-on can be two independent clauses with no punctuation separating them such as “I ate an ice cream cone it tasted good.”
  • A run-on can be one independent clause and one fragment usually connected without punctuation such as “I ate an ice cream cone was good.”

The problem is not how to correct run-ons.  When I point out run-ons in students’ writing, almost always students can identify where the error is and insert the correct punctuation or needed words.

The problem is that students don’t recognize run-ons within their own writing until someone points them out.  How can students be trained to recognize run-ons?

When I work with a student who tends to write  run-ons, I write “R-O” in the margins of papers we are revising.  At the end of our lesson, when we go over what needs improvement, again I write “R-O” in that list. On later dates, before we revise any student writing, I ask the student what kinds of errors he often makes.  Almost always he will say, “run-ons.”  I direct him to check each sentence for run-ons and to correct them before we revise together.

My hope is that when a student knows he makes a particular writing mistake, such as run-ons, he will look for those mistakes before submitting his writing to a teacher or to me.  This takes practice.

I have found certain kinds of run-ons are common.  One is an independent thought followed by a second independent thought which begins with a pronoun.  For example, “John ate the pie it was delicious.”  Or “Mary fell off the swing she hurt her elbow.”  Sometimes this type run-on uses a comma between the two clauses and sometimes not.

If I know a particular student tends to make these mistakes, I remind him to circle pronouns in the middle of sentences and to see if those pronouns start independent thoughts.  If so, a period, semicolon or comma-conjunction pair is needed to correct the error.

When I give students worksheets on run-ons, they spot and correct them with ease.  But when they write, they are unaware they have written run-ons until someone points this out or until they have become so accustomed to searching for them after-the-fact that they question themselves about a run-on while they are composing.

The key to solving run-ons is practice in recognizing them.  This can take years.