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.

Does a narrative have a thesis?

Does a narrative have a thesis?

Yes, though it’s not called a thesis.  It’s called a story arc.  Think of some of the best-selling novels or movies you’ve read or seen.  Do they contain a story arc?












How about Gone with the Wind?  The story starts with flirty Miss Scarlett surrounded by young men, all madly in love with her.  The story moves upstairs at the Wilkes’ mansion where the girls are reclining—all but Scarlet who slips downstairs, draws Ashley Wilkes into the library, and declares her love for him.  He politely says no, but  Scarlett won’t accept his refusal.  When Ashley leaves, Scarlet throws china at the fireplace.  An amused Rhett Butler, who has overheard everything, is aroused.  Scarlet wants Ashley and will do what it takes to get him.  And Rhett wants Scarlett.

How about Anna Karenina?  In the opening pages, Mrs. Karenina visits her brother who has recently had an affair.  She meets a military officer and by her return home a few days later, she is in love, as is Count Vronsky.   Anna Karenina wants Count Vronsky and flaunts society to live as his mistress.

As Huckleberry Finn begins, Huck tries repeatedly to get away from the Widow Douglas who represents rules and civilized behavior–anathema to Huck. Pretty soon he does slip away, finding a raft and floating down the Mississippi with Jim, an escaped slave.  Huckleberry Finn rides the Mississippi in order to experience freedom.

How about Casablanca?  Rick, a stoic bar owner, lives without love until his old flame and her husband appear in his bar.  He must choose:  keep Elsa for himself and be safe or help her husband and her to escape the Nazis and become a wanted man.  Rick wrestles with emotions he thought were dead to make his choice.

Agatha Christie wrote dozens of murder mysteries all with the same story arc:  Who done it?  You know when you start to read one of her books that someone will die, and eventually, someone will be exposed as the killer.  Person A kills person B and either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple solves the crime.

Have you ever read a story lacking a story arc?  I have started several, but if I can’t figure out where the story is going early on, I don’t continue.  So a story arc is like a thesis in that it tells readers what they can expect to learn from the story.  A story arc is usually stated more obliquely than a thesis, but it must be present for the story to be satisfying.

How to begin a novel

Q:  How should a good novel begin, according to writing experts today?

  1. With backstory
  2. With an inciting event

A:  b.  With an inciting event, with action of some kind to grab the reader into the story.  Two hundred, one hundred, even fifty years ago this wasn’t the way writers started novels.  But times have changed, and so have readers who expect writers to grab them into their stories in the opening paragraphs.

Q:  If that’s true, then how should a novel introduce backstory?

  1.  By getting the story underway, pausing to fill in background details, and then resuming the forward action of the story.
  2. By weaving background details into a story as needed without ever pausing.

A:  b.  By weaving background details into a story as they are needed, without stopping or even slowing down the forward action, is the recommended way to include backstory today.

And yet,

This past week I read a novel which received high praise from a news source I respect.  As I turned from page 3 to page 4 to page 13 to page 24, I thought, C’mon, c’mon. When is this story going to take off?  It did around page 35, or so I thought for a couple of pages.  But I was wrong.  The scene described there turned out to be more backstory.  It wasn’t until about page 70 that the action really started.

70 unnecessary pages.  Or at least 70 pages which could have been reduced to two or three pages and tucked into the forward action part of the novel.  If not for the four-star review, I would have stopped reading by page 10. 

Q:  So how did this novel get published with such a laborious beginning?

A:  The author is an established writer with several best sellers, some of which have been turned into TV miniseries.  Editors are reluctant to ask such a writer to cut 35 pages, no matter how slowly they move the novel along.

Q:  What can we learn from this?

  1.  If you are a best-selling author, anything goes.
  2. Even if you are a best-selling author, some reviewers will pan your book if it has a slow, wordy start.
  3. Listen to writing experts and start with an inciting event until you become a best-selling author.

A:  a.  Yes.  b.  Yes.  I went online and found reviewers who liked the book and others who said it could have been improved by eliminating several dozen pages at the beginning.  c.  Yes.  Jump right in if you want to hook your readers.

When is biography nonfiction? When is it fiction?

When is biography nonfiction?  When is it fiction?

Consider these lines from a recent biography of Cleopatra: 

  • “We can picture the queen on her bed, her curves rising with every breath, as she gazes at Antony confidently, intensely, invitingly, her full lips half open.”)

Or consider this description of Cleopatra about to bathe:

  • “First her calves disappear, then her harmonious thighs.”

These descriptions are taken from a just published English version of a biography of the Egyptian queen entitled Cleopatra: The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity.


But is this book biography?  Do biographers have the right to imagine scenes which might have happened to historical figures when there is no written record of such scenes?  Is it okay for them to write of intimate details of lives when those intimate details—even if true—are lost to history?  Can we call such writing “biography?”

Like Angela, other contemporary writers are forsaking strict factual evidence when they write biographies, instead favoring imagined scenes, facial expressions, and dialog.  This is true especially for biographies of women about whom so little was written in the past.

Television is influencing this trend.  Consider The Crown, the Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II.  So much of the conversation in this series is imagined by the show’s writers.  They admit that some of the scenes never happened.  Yet the producers refuse to add a disclaimer to say that the series is fiction.  The series deals with real people and with significant historical events.  But with so much of its contents imagined, is it nonfiction or fiction?

When is biography nonfiction?  When is it fiction?  We live in a time when we have become accustomed to governments and politicians lying to us.  Perhaps we now expect license with the truth.  Perhaps it is the new normal.

How to keep students writing this summer

For me, as a writing tutor, one of the hardest aspects of enabling a student to write is finding a topic.  A few students with vivid imaginations could write fantasy narratives each week, but they balk at writing informational or persuasive essays.

Most boys have one inexhaustible writing topic—playing video games—which I nix.  Too many of my students have written such essays with poor, unintelligible results.  And boys don’t like my idea of writing about “why I like video games” or “what I learn from video games.”

The students I tutor—and I assume they are like most other students—know nothing about what is happening in the world.  (Last fall some didn’t know a Presidential election was underway.)  Writing about current events is out unless I spend a big part of the class bringing students up-to-date on world events.

Students don’t read books unless forced by their teachers. Writing about book themes, characters, or settings is possible, but because the number of books my students have read is minuscule, such writing opportunities are meager.  They balk at reading books during the summer.  “It’s vacation!” they wail.

What to do?  Here are my solutions.

For my high school students, I search for well-written newspaper articles.  Recently, for example, The New York Times had one on underinvestment in the computer chip industry, and The Wall Street Journal had one on a forgotten jazz composer.  I create SAT-like questions about each article, including identifying vocabulary meanings.  Then I create a specific narrative, informational or persuasive question about the article for the student to respond to in essay fashion.

Using news stories has many advantages.  It offers a broad range of subject matter for students to read and for me to ask questions about.  It offers up-to-date reading material—students can’t believe they are reading and writing about something in yesterday’s paper.  It requires intense reading but just for 350 to 500 words, far less effort than reading a book.  It allows me to assign an essay every other class or sometimes every class, using class time to discuss the answers to the questions I give a student and to critique the essay.  Homework often is to revise the essay in ways we discuss in class.

The drawback is that I must spend time finding good articles and then writing questions about them.  But this is my job.

For my middle school students and fifth graders, I assign the reading of stories with questions to answer.  www.edconpublishing.com produces 40-plus stories of classic books like David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer, grouped by difficulty level.  Ten pages of reading are followed by ten pages of multiple choice questions.  I assign these, one a week or one every other week.  After a student has read a story, and we have gone over the questions to be sure the student comprehends them, I assign a narrative, informational or persuasive essay.

Using booklets like these has advantages.  They introduce students to great stories.  They force the student to read and to prove they understand what they have read.  They offer students and me a common topic about which to write.  I must come up with essay questions, one for each type essay middle grades students are expected to master.  We critique the essays and revise them based on the most serious errors or shortcomings.

Sometimes for fifth graders I assign books to read such as Judy Bloom’s Fudge series or the first Harry Potter book, and I create essay questions based on those books.  I choose books I have read and know well to cut down on my class preparation time.

These days I interact with students via Zoom.  I find the results are good.  Students share their essays with me via Google drive.

It is possible to keep students reading and writing about what they read during the summer.  Perhaps you have found some other ways?  If so, please share them with me at this blog.  Or if your student needs a tutor, contact me.