The following article was written by Martin Cutts, the research director of Plain Language Commission (http://clearest.co.uk/pages/home), and it appeared in their newsletter, Pikestaff. You can download their newsletters and free guides about plain language -- all in pdf format -- from this page: http://clearest.co.uk/pages/publications.
An error common in business English – but rare in professionally edited work – is the run-on sentence or comma splice, where a comma is placed between two statements that should stand alone as complete sentences. Here’s a typical example in a marketing leaflet:
‘The solar photovoltaic system is particularly good news for electric AGA owners, the cooker can store the green energy generated by the solar panels, rather than sending it back to the grid.’
The first comma cannot carry this burden and needs upgrading to a stronger mark such as the full stop (US: period) or semicolon. Even a colon would be possible, as it can denote a long pause that acts as a ‘why–because’ marker. In this case, it would answer the question ‘Why is this good news?’
Run-on sentences are rife in all the UK’s graduate professions, so it was no surprise to see this recently in a referral letter written by an ophthalmologist working for the Specsavers chain:
‘Distance vision is very poor and I was unable to improve this with glasses however near vision could be improved. Mrs Jones has significant cataracts in both eyes causing her reduced vision, ocular health otherwise seems OK.’
The first sentence needs a full stop or semicolon after ‘glasses’, with a comma after ‘however’. Failing this, ‘however’ could be replaced by ‘but’ without any punctuation being needed. In the second sentence, the comma should become a semicolon or full stop.
Well we’ve, er, run this kind of story before, but clearly plenty of bright people are undergoing more than a decade of secondary and tertiary education – even getting respectable passes in English – without their teachers helping them to punctuate properly. Why is this?