Unsolicited Advice: Writing, Part 2: Sentence Faux Pas (UPDATED*)

Comrade Physioprof started to cover writing with the simple sentence, but I’m going to take this one and run with it. The sentence is the ‘grammatical unit of language’, and as C. Physioprof has already noted contains a subject and a predicate (which is a fancy pants way of saying the terms that modify the subject), starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. Usually.

Pretty simple so far, right? I feel kind of silly even explaining it, but here’s the thing. There are two ways that people commonly go wrong with this simple concept in scientific writing that I see ALL THE TIME when I’m editing. Both may be acceptable in fiction, I don’t write fiction so I wouldn’t know, but I can assure you that they are not at all acceptable in scientific writing.

The first of these common wrong turns is the fragment, aka  incomplete sentence:

Such as electrical, chemical or biological engineering.

Suggests the following result.

I don’t see fragments very often, but when I do it’s like nails on the chalkboard. A capital and a period should not be bracketing those collections of words up there, hopefully you recognize why this is so. Fragments do not convey a complete thought, and they are disconnected from the rest of the phrase to which they refer. This is a no-no in scientific writing. Don’t go there.

The second of these issues, and the more common one by far,  is the run- on sentence. Oh boy, and I can’t tell you how many times I break down sentences where it seemed like the writer was trying to put the entire contents of their brain between that capitol letter and the period. I’ve got a co-author whom I adore who writes a prize-winning run-on sentence from time to time:

You know who you are and just in case you read this I’ll give you a forum to share all my writing faux pas in some later post, I promise, but since you don’t blog and you are really nice you probably wouldn’t be into publicly outing me on my writing bad habits , but hey this is a blog and all my readers know my weaknesses already,  like my crappy spelling and the way I like to use the word quantitate instead of quantify, and then again you are way, way better than me at so many parts of both of our day jobs.

Are you gasping for air, because I am! It is perfectly ok to hook phrases together with a comma, not everything has to be a simple sentence.  But don’t try to cover the entire paragraph with only 1 period. Please. I’m begging you, break it up. Give your reader one thought at a time.

Thus ends lesson #2:  Don’t leave out necessary parts, and don’t try to cram ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING in between the capital letter and the period.

*Some of you have noted in the comments that my example of a run on sentence, sucks as a sentence but is not really a run-on.  It is a terrible sentence although I did connect two sentences without proper punctuation it can still be considered a run-on because of the wild use of comma splicing.

Ya happy now???

I would even argue that the use of too many independent phrases connected with commas is something I see much more frequently in editing scientific writing than the honest-to-god strict definition of a run-on.

(These posts have been pretty uncontroversial thus far, in one of the next posts we will tackle the use of the passive voice- and I’m sure things will get a little more heated.)

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18 thoughts on “Unsolicited Advice: Writing, Part 2: Sentence Faux Pas (UPDATED*)

  1. You know who you are and just in case you read this I’ll give you a forum to share all my writing faux pas in some later post, I promise, but since you don’t blog and you are really nice you probably wouldn’t be into publicly outing me on my writing bad habits , but hey this is a blog and all my readers know my weaknesses already, like my crappy spelling and the way I like to use the word quantitate instead of quantify, and then again you are way, way better than me at so many parts of both of our day jobs.

    Other than a few missing commas, this sentence is perectly grammatical and is not a run-on sentence.

  2. Hooray, so it’s okay to write really long sentences as long as they are grammatical? I love long sentences, because splitting them up into shorter ones always makes me feel like a fembot.

  3. I suspect that the paragraph is grammatical because drdr just couldn’t bring herself to write a real run on sentence, they are really terrible and pretty much like nails on a blackboard.

  4. “So long as clauses are punctuated appropriately, a writer can assemble multiple independent clauses in a single sentence; in fact, a properly constructed sentence can be extended indefinitely.” (from wikipedia.

    I think it would be funny to see someone write an entire paper as on very long sentence. Or at least, write an entire paragraph that way.

    (yup, I’m trying to hurt drdr’s ears)

  5. I confess, I’m incapable of writing a real run on sentence.

    But don’t even imagine you could put a sentence like that one in a paper.

  6. I admit it.

    I write insanely long sentences.

    I always have to go back and split them up after my 1st draft.

  7. I was brought up to believe that comma splices were included in the definition of run-on sentences (though it’s true that drdrA managed to avoid even that). Who knew that some people think a comma splice, as per the wiki entry, isn’t included? I learn about cultural diversity every day.

    DrdrA, my gradadvisor most frequently tells me that I write well but a skitch too formally (in papers–obvs not a blog problem….). I think she’s right and I’m trying to go more brief and Germanic, but it’s hard to strike the right balance between sophisticated enough for science journals yet not haughty/formal.

  8. Amusingly, though, drdrA’s later sentence It is perfectly ok to hook phrases together with a comma, not everything has to be a simple sentence. IS a run-on sentence (in this case, a comma splice). Biter bit!

  9. My pet peeve is the punctuation, not the length of the sentence. I just need to be able to pause in the right places and take a breath. But don’t get me wrong- your sentence is 5 times too long for its own good.

  10. HAHAHA! Go Pinus and CPP! This is like an AA meeting on punctuation. My thesis advisers issued me special instructions that it takes more than one sentence to make a paragraph.

  11. Yup Pinus–me too.

    Sometimes my sentences go for about half a paragraph when they first come out of my head. I usually just blabber through everything freely, through, and then go back through to fix things like that later. I’d rather get my thoughts down in an unfettered fashion.

  12. What is this, amateur night?

    Get a loada this sentence from one of the Old Pros of discourse.

    “For although God in the first ordaining of marriage, taught us to what end he did it, in words expresly implying the apt and cheerfull conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of generation till afterwards, as being but a secondary end in dignity, though not in necessity; yet now, if any two be but once handed in the Church, and have tasted in any sort the nuptiall bed, let them finde themselves never so mistak’n in their dispositions through any error, concealment, or misadventure, that through their different tempers, thoughts, and constitutions, they can neither be to one another a remedy against lonelines, nor live in any union or contentment all their dayes, yet they shall, so they be but found suitably weapon’d to the least possibility of sensuall enjoyment, be made, spight of antipathy to fadge together, and combine as they may to their unspeakable wearisomnes and despaire of all sociable delight in the ordinance which God establisht to that very end.”

    John Milton On the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.

  13. Dr. J & Mrs. H. – That one was on purpose! I’m delighted I can still do bad grammar- and it took me some effort! I think you are the only one who caught that!

    DSKS- I’m a little rusty on the Milton- but thank you for the lovely, lovely example.

    Kiwi- You re right, this is turning into a confessional for long sentence writers. I’m wondering what other sins they are going to confess to on this thread…

    And you people are wild, 400+ page views to talk about the sentence. I’m wondering what’s going to happen when we cover the paragraph.

  14. I reviewed a paper which was chock full of run-on sentences to the point of madness. And I had a thought – do you remember those MAD LIBS books as a kid? It’s a bunch of sentences with blanks to fill in with silly words – this entire paper screamed one big Mad Lib Book from Science Hell.

    I present you with a Mad Lib sentence:

    Highlighting a (insert adjective) structure of this type is of interest from the standpoint of researching (insert water cooler topic) and the continuation of (insert color) (insert noun), but it is incredibly telling when one of the (insert plural animal) in the relationship is (insert ice cream flavor).

    It’s a bad sign when the reviewer is wanting to gouge her eyes out! If you can make a mad lib out of your sentence, please break it up. please for the love of gawd.

  15. jc-

    I used to correct grammar in people’s papers- and I don’t anymore unless it’s particularly egregious, or I use a single example of something they have done throughout. When it’s awful (as it is, many times), I let the editor know that extensive editing for standard English will be required. I just don’t have time or the inclination to be the proofreader for manuscripts I’m supposed to be reviewing. But, I know what you mean- they can be painful to read and I have to hold my red pen back- because it’s not worth my time.

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