Running On and On

What does it mean, really, to think clearly? It’s an important question because writing and thinking are so closely associated. To ask what thinking clearly means is also to ask what writing clearly means.

If we confine our discussion here to expository prose—the explanatory composition most of us undertake most of the time in emails and letters and reports—writing and thinking clearly mean making distinctions and showing connections, seeing something for what it is and showing how it stands in relation to something else. If it is true as the philosophers say that “life flows,” then making distinctions and showing connections means stepping out of the flow and onto shore for a moment to see and understand what is going on.

This is why conjunctions and punctuation play such an important role in clear writing. Take this unassuming sentence, for example:

I spoke to him last night, we will meet Tuesday.

Here is one sentence of two clauses joined by a comma. Every clause is a thought, and the writer has succeeded in making a clear distinction between two different acts: speaking and meeting. But what is the connection between these two ideas? We’re justified in assuming they are logically related in some way because the two clauses have been put in the same sentence; we don’t know how they are related, though, because there is no conjunction to show the logical relationship. Conjunctions, not commas, connect.

This is an example of the infamous run-on sentence, where a comma is used to sort clauses instead of a conjunction. It’s reasonable to assume that the Tuesday meeting is a consequence of last night’s conversation. Consequence, or result, then, would be the logical connection between these two clauses, and there are a number of conjunctions, some more formal than others, to indicate that connection: therefore, as a result, so.

We can now revise the sentence in at least three ways. The first is to supply, somewhat heavy-handedly, the most obvious conjunction of consequence:

I spoke to him last night; therefore we will meet Tuesday.

This will never do, though, given the simple circumstances being conveyed. So next we can use a less formal conjunction of consequence, this one in the form of a phrase:

I spoke to him last night, and so we will meet Tuesday.

Better, but still not best. Exactly because both ideas in the two clauses are so simple, the best revision is simply to stand the two ideas next to each other (as the author originally sensed), but connect them properly now with a semicolon, not a comma:

I spoke to him last night; we will meet Tuesday.

And here we come to a requirement for standard English: replace an omitted conjunction with a semicolon, not a comma. When we omit words that are logically necessary (a stylistic device called ellipsis), we bring a slight sophistication to our writing; we want the reader to know something without telling them directly, so we wink with the semicolon, showing we trust them to see the connection.

I often tell students that after the verb, conjunctions are the most important part of speech, and in some ways more interesting and difficult because they involve thinking critically. If we don’t signal our thinking to the reader through the right conjunction and punctuation, then the ideas we are writing run on and on without effect, and both we and our reader are none the wiser.


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