A Runaway Sentence: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

--Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Does this sound at all familiar?  Bulwer-Lytton is known as a writer of purple prose and runaway sentences.  This one sentence represents, among the writing community, the WORST way ever to begin a novel.  The phrase "It was a dark and stormy night" has even become a cliché, memorialized in books and movies such as Throw Momma From the Train.  (Only in the movie, the writer was struggling over "The night was . . ..") 

This is just one example of Bulwer-Lytton's style.  Once browsing in a thrift store, I came across one of his books, Last Days of Pompeii, and I just had to buy it.  Flipping through it at random, I find this sentence:  "Although the public thermae (baths) were instituted rather for the poorer citizens than the wealthy (for the last had baths in their own houses), yet to the crowds of all ranks who resorted to them, it was a favorite place for conversation, and for that indolent lounging so dear to a gay and thoughtless people" (46).

Even his characters spoke often in such sentences.    "While, then," resumed Arbaces, "our fathers of the Nile thus achieved the first elements by whose life chaos is destroyed -- namely, the obedience and reverence of the multitude for the few -- they drew from their majestic and starred meditations that wisdom which was no delusion. . . . " (38).

His stuff was so bad that there is now a yearly contest to see who can write the world's worst first sentence for a novel, a la Bulwer-Lytton.  For lots of fun reading, go to see this year's winners:  http://www.sjsu.edu/depts/english/2007.htm.

However (and this is crucial), Bulwer-Lytton's grammar and punctuation is fine.  Every clause (SV unit) is connected to the rest of the sentence by a conjunction -- which, when, for, that.  It is a runaway sentence, but not a run-on sentence.  Every SV unit is combined legally to the rest of the sentence.

Bulwer-Lytton's sentences are great examples of sentences that may be poor style, but they are grammatically correct.  So -- at least for this class -- do not think of a run-on as a sentence that goes on and on and on (as Bulwer-Lytton would have written it) but rather as two sentences (or more) combined illegally.
True Run-On Sentences With that definition, you'll find that run-on sentences may actually be short and sweet.  Here are some examples:
I was hungry I ate. He gave me some books I read them.
Let's go bicycling, I need to lose weight. We took a long walk, then I took a nap.
Maria was born in Mexico she recently moved here. George goes to CNM he wants to become a nurse.
My brother is short I am tall. Alex didn't study for his test he failed it.


  This page last updated by Connie Gulick, Tuesday, May 18, 2010.