Finding a Rock in a Stream

I managed to involve myself this past week in a difficult online chat with customer service, and early on in the exchange the agent wrote, I am going to send you a code on your mobile number on file, once you receive it please provide it to me. The comma caught my attention, and although I spared my online intelligencer the correction, I will not you.

The pith of the problem, as we have discussed in the past (Running On and On), is that the comma is too weak a punctuating mark to properly associate the two clauses. The mischoice has produced another instance of the infamous run-on sentence, and we can quickly correct the problem (because it is a problem, not an option) either by changing the comma to a semicolon (I am going to send you a code on your mobile number on file; once you receive it please provide it to me) or by individuating the two clauses into self-reliant sentences in their own right (I am going to send you a code on your mobile number on file. Once you receive it please provide it to me). Either revision (and there are still others) will better what we’ve found, but we can do even a bit better.

This phenomenon of the run-on sentence seems, unfortunately, to be growing in popularity, and were I to conjecture on the cause, I would point to the pace of things we live amidst. There is now this to be dealt with and now there is that, and as some cultural critics have pointed out, we have neither time nor temper to discern how one thing is connected to the next that suddenly arrives. There is no pause, our attention is dispersed, and the overpouring is seen in the almost stream-of-consciousness sentences we regularly write. Hence, the run-on sentence.

So what to do? We have to find some rock in our mental stream to clamber onto and from there survey the scene we’re writing about. My customer service friend told me he was going to send me a code, but to move things along toward resolving my problem, would it not have been better to tell me I have sent a code? This would then have made the subordinate once you receive it unnecessary, and the way would have been cleared for the next action to be taken: please send it back to me. And from there, the chance and space to tell me the why of it all: to confirm your identity. The revision, then, brings a meaningful shape to an otherwise mere miscellany of actions: I have just sent a code to the mobile number we have on file. Please send it back to me to confirm your identity. Thus would I have known connectedly what happened, what is required of me, and why.

The world may be, as the poet William Wordsworth profoundly said (more than 200 years ago!), too much with us, but it is the role of reason to shape and order that oncoming world so that we may come to the point and move on to the next. Shape and order signal meaning, and we seem unable as a species to be uninterested in meaning.


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1 Comment

  1. As always, a judicious blend of grammatical fact and philosophical observation.

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