Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2014
The Legal Writer
Examine Emails for Infection
By Suzanne E. Rowe
In the past few months, I have seen an outbreak of run-on sentences in email communications. What do you do when you receive an email message with a run-on sentence?
a) Respond with an erudite explanation of the inexcusable mistake.
b) Seethe silently.
c) Create a list.
For the past few months, I have chosen to create a list. I have simply copied the offensive text and pasted it into my list. Yes, that means that some of your sentences are on my list.
But creating the list was just a way to avoid seething and to postpone my erudite explanations. I’ll be using some of the sentences on my list as examples; details have been changed to protect the guilty. I’ll end with suggestions for avoiding run-ons in future email messages (and maybe other writing, as well).
What’s a Run-on?
Some of you wished for a fourth response to my question. Response (d) would have been, “What’s a run-on sentence anyway?”
To answer that question, we have to define a “sentence.” And that’s remarkably difficult to do. My favorite dictionary offers this rather unhelpful summary: a set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses.
Well, if you know what is meant by “complete” and you are comfortable with predicates and clauses, then you probably don’t need to read this article and likely haven’t contributed any sentences to my list.
Most Internet sites that I consulted offer a simpler explanation. They say that a sentence contains a subject and a verb, and it expresses a complete thought. Simply put, a subject is the person, place or thing doing the action of the sentence. The verb is the action. A complete thought doesn’t leave the reader hanging. (If you object to that simplification, I welcome you to write a guest column explaining complete sentences.)
For example, addressed the jury is not a sentence because it says what happened (addressed) but not who performed the action (the judge, the prosecutor, the witness). Similarly, the judge addressing the jury is not a sentence because there’s not a full verb (addressing needs a helping verb like was) and the thought is incomplete (we wonder what was she addressing the jury about). The following is a complete sentence: The judge addressed the jury. So is this: The judge was addressing the jury to explain the limits on outside communications during the trial.
A run-on sentence occurs when two sentences appear as one, without appropriate divisions or connections. Most often, the writer sticks a comma between the two sentences and rushes on. The fixes are easy:
a) Replace the comma with a period.
b) Replace the comma with a semicolon.
c) Add a conjunction just after the comma.
Let’s take the following example: The plaintiff lost his job and had to drop out of school, he is still unemployed. This example contains two sentences (also known as “independent clauses”), which are best demonstrated by using a period: The plaintiff lost his job and had to drop out of school. He is still unemployed. Using a semicolon instead of a period shows how closely related the ideas in the two sentences are: The plaintiff lost his job and had to drop out of school; he is still unemployed. The comma with basic conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) is the least eye-catching of the three fixes, but it’s grammatically correct: The plaintiff lost his job and had to drop out of school, and he is still unemployed.
Dare I Share Examples?
In each of the following examples of run-on sentences, I suggest simply changing the comma to a period. You’ll have two complete sentences, rather than one run-on mess. If you want to be fancy, you can replace the comma with a semicolon. (To practice grammar as you go, identify the subject and verb in each clause, and then ask whether there’s a complete thought.)
You can submit the proposal at your earliest convenience, you do not have to wait until March.
The process is complex and expensive, that is our challenge.
I am glad you are enjoying your new role in the organization, it sounds perfect for your background and interests.
Questions can also create run-on sentences. In the following two examples, the first sentence should end with a period, not a comma. The next sentence needs to begin with a capital letter, of course, but the question mark at the end is fine.
You mentioned that you just finished reading the reply brief, could I take a look?
I’m still waiting for opposing counsel to return my call, should I let you know when I’ve heard from her?
A disproportionate number of the run-on sentences that I see appear in the final lines of email messages. That leads me to believe that the writers have mentally moved on to the next project. But the weak closing leaves a poor last impression.
Please reply to me if you will be able to attend, we would be delighted to have you join us.
I am looking forward to attending this event, I have already put it on my calendar!
I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you, thanks so much for offering.
Thanks for letting me know, this all sounds fine.
Please contact my assistant to schedule a time for us to meet if you have any questions, thank you for your interest in this project.
Those of you deconstructing each sentence have realized that several of these last examples don’t contain explicit subjects. The sentence Please contact my assistant… has an implicit subject: You. It’s still a complete thought with the implicit subject. (But that’s advanced grammar that our guest columnist will explain in illuminating detail.)
Examples Demanding Semicolons
The examples in this set are a bit more complicated because the two sentences are connected by a conjunctive adverb (e.g., otherwise, however). The best way to avoid the run-on is to put a semicolon before the adverb and a comma afterwards. (You could create two sentences, with a period instead of a semicolon.) For this set, I’ll follow the example with a correctly punctuated sentence.
Please remember to bring your dues, otherwise you will not be able to participate. CORRECT: Please remember to bring your dues; otherwise, you will not be able to participate.
I assumed the older documents were no longer relevant, however, I was wrong. CORRECT: I assumed the older documents were no longer relevant; however, I was wrong.
He has several suggestions that he wants to discuss with you, in addition he would like to introduce you to his new partner. CORRECT: He has several suggestions that he wants to discuss with you; in addition, he would like to introduce you to his new partner.
The last example seems to lend itself best to two sentences because the two main thoughts seem less connected: He has several suggestions that he wants to discuss with you. In addition, he would like to introduce you to his new partner.
How to Find Run-ons
The problem with most run-ons is that the second sentence fits so nicely with the first one. We don’t realize it should get its own period; instead, we let the first sentence act like a helicopter parent that just can’t let go.
One way to find these run-ons is to read the sentences of your message in reverse order, stopping at each comma to see whether the clause that follows could be its own sentence. (Of course, I am making the wild assumption that you are proofing your professional email messages as carefully as you would any other professional communication.) If you were reading the second clauses of the earlier examples apart from their helicopters, you’d realize that I was wrong and You will not be able to participate are complete sentences. Subject — check. Verb — check. Complete thought — check.
Try another strategy if you are enormously pressed for time: read through your last few sentences and determine whether any are run-ons. Those last sentences seem to have the highest incidence of run-ons, and they leave that final impression.
In the dark ages (aka when I was young), we learned about run-ons and other fine points of sentence structure in grade school. Then we read books by authors who respected the grammatical foundations of the English language. Now I’m not sure what is happening in grade schools; coming from a family of teachers, I am sure all grade school teachers are underpaid. Moreover, I see many novelists aiming to distinguish themselves with quirky writing styles — choppy fragments of sentences, paragraphs without punctuation that stretch on for pages, no quotation marks around dialogue.
When you write your next novel, you can follow suit. When you write your next professional email — and certainly when you write your next brief — you should respect the grammatical foundations of the English language. Avoid the run-on outbreak.
Source: The New Oxford American Dictionary (3d ed. 2010).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2014 Suzanne E. Rowe