Breaking rules are what all the cool cats are doing these days (and have been doing for years, to be honest with you – it isn’t something that goes out of fashion). Even though new writers may find themselves drawn to the myriad number of ‘rules’ for writing that exist on the internet, there are a lot of writing ‘Dos and Don’ts’ that were made to be ignored – so long as you do it right, of course.
Chief among these are often rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation. Not least because attempts to standardise language and the written word often leads to the suppression or marginalisation of communities and peoples.
Grammar rules do exist for a reason; yet learning when and how to ignore certain rules can enhance your writing.
To give you an example, in this article we’ll look at the run-on sentence – and show you how you can throw all conventional wisdom out of the proverbial window in order to write one hell’uva good story.
Cool runnings – an introduction to the run-on sentence
First things first; the basics: run-on sentences, also known as fused sentences, occur when two complete sentences are squashed together without using a coordinating conjunction or proper punctuation, such as a period or a semicolon. Run-on sentences can be short or long. A long sentence isn’t necessarily a run-on sentence.
What’s the problem with using a run-on sentence?
A run-on sentence lacks the correct punctuation to tell the reader where to pause or to signal that a new idea is being expressed. The reader may be confused about the meaning of the sentence or have to make their own decision about where to pause.
Correcting a run-on sentence can help your sentences read more smoothly and should help your reader understand what you’re trying to say more easily. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.
Breaking the grammar rule
Now, we’re not advocating ignoring the rules around run-on sentences completely: you can’t use them for everything you write, constantly. But if you understand how to conveniently forget about the grammar rule around them from time to time, you can help bring some new-found life and variation to your stories that will leave your readers gasping for breath – and gasping for more of your writing.
In the spirit of one of the most frequently touted rules of writing – we aren’t going to tell you how to do this; but rather show you, by using examples from some of the greatest writers who didn’t think twice about what grammatical rules they may or may not have been breaking.
First up – and perhaps not surprisingly – we have James Joyce’s Ulysses, which famously concludes with Penelope, or Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, which has 24,048 words punctuated by two periods and one comma. Here’s a part of the final episode:
“…I suppose he was thinking of his father I wonder is he awake thinking of me or dreaming am I in it who gave him that flower he said he bought he smelt of some kind of drink not whisky or stout or perhaps the sweety kind of paste they stick their bills up with some liquor Id like to sip those richlooking green and yellow expensive drinks those stagedoor johnnies drink with the opera hats I tasted one with my finger dipped out of that American that had the squirrel talking stamps with father he had all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar and they come and tell you theres no God what could you do if it was running and rushing about nothing only make an act of contrition the candle I lit that evening in Whitefriars street chapel for the month of May see it brought its luck though hed scoff if he heard because he never goes to church mass or meeting he says your soul you have no soul inside only grey matter because he doesnt know what it is to have one yes when I lit the lamp yes…”
If you find this difficult to follow, you’re not alone. At the time of writing, this soliloquy contained the longest sentence ever written at 4,391 words, which made it the master of all run on sentences.
Nonetheless, while you might not want to go quite as far as Joyce, you can see how ignoring conventional grammatical wisdom can enhance the intensity, voice, and style of your writing. It helps your words to flow freely, adding life and vigour to your writing.
For our second example, we’re turning to another literary great, David Foster Wallace. His short story Incarnations of burned children was first published in Esquire magazine and you can read it online for free (do it now). The story consists of only nine sentences, and yet is 1100 words. The breathless run-on sentences intentionally lend to a panicked, anxious reading, a messy and somewhat incoherent babble as neither the narrator nor the Daddy nor the Mommy can slow down and think rationally.
Here are the first three sentences of the story, to give you a flavour of how Wallace breaks traditional grammatical rules to such devastating effect:
“The Daddy was around the side of the house hanging a door for the tenant when he heard the child’s screams and the Mommy’s voice gone high between them. He could move fast, and the back porch gave onto the kitchen, and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose, not yet aware of how smoothly he moved or that he’d ceased to hear the high screams because to hear them would freeze him and make impossible what had to be done to help his child, whose screams were regular as breath and went on so long they’d become already a thing in the kitchen, something else to move quickly around.”
Protect your voice
If we were to ‘correct’ the work of Joyce and Wallace (to name just two authors who ignore the run-on sentence rule), we may make them conform more closely with standardised English language; but both works would lose something fundamental in doing so. They would lose their energy; they would lose their voice.
Since a writer’s voice has more to do with what meaning is or isn’t conveyed to the reader than the grammatical rules and syntactical structures we place upon our written language, these stories would have their fundamental essence rearranged and, ultimately diminished.
So, if you find yourself locked in a burst of frenzied writing energy and wake the next morning covered in raw coffee beans and ink (we’ve all been there) to find that your prose is riddled with run-on sentences; don’t worry. Sit back, re-read what you’ve written, and remember the timeless (though slightly paraphrased) words of Doc Brown from Back to the Future: “Rules? Where we’re going, we don’t need rules…”