Universities and Colleges
Request Access
Day One
Review Copies
Custom Solutions
Day One
Day One
Author's Corner
Universities and Colleges

Thomson Nelson > Higher Education > Conversations about Writing - Eavesdropping, Inkshedding, and Joining In > Readings - The Place of Run-Ons and Dashes in Writing

Readings - The Place of Run-ons and Dashes in Writing—The Craft of Breaking Conventions

Cornelia Paraskevas

(Unpublished paper, January 2004)


For fifteen years now, I've been asked the same questions every time I teach composition: “Is it OK to use dashes? Can I have fragments? Can I start my sentences with ‘and'? Can I use ‘I'?” And invariably, instead of telling, I show my class what happens in real life: I bring in newspapers and magazines, books and flyers so that my students can see what real writers do, how they break conventions in their published work. This demonstration leads to a discussion about the nature and purpose of conventions. Instead of seeing conventions as absolute rules, we should see them as ways writers have to help readers make meaning—roadmaps, in other words, that guide readers in their reading, roadsigns that tell readers when to come to a complete stop and when to yield, where to pay particular attention and where to skim. And instead of seeing unconventional use as an error, we can see it as rhetorical, as intent to craft language and text.



Let's first look at one aspect of conventions—punctuation. Punctuation is a fairly recent creation (1500), originally meant as a guide to speakers for the oral delivery of texts written by others (Bolton 178). Commas, for example, guided orators to pause briefly while full stops (periods)—as their name reveals—guided orators to stop for a longer period of time.

         Punctuation changes over time: if we look at texts from the 1900's, we notice heavy punctuation—commas were required to separate introductory phrases regardless of their length (Stott 103). Current practice, however, allows us to omit a comma after a short introductory phrase as long as the omission does not lead to confusion. Further, punctuation can differ across countries that share the same language. In British English, for example, commas and periods go outside the quotation marks; in American English, they go inside (Crystal 283).

         Despite all we know about punctuation, the school texts and handbooks my students use present punctuation as a set of absolute rules, instead of a set of “tendencies” (Quirk 1060). For example, even though handbooks consider dashes to be informal punctuation marks usually reserved for emphasizing appositives (O'Hare 347), in non-school publications we often find dashes used in the place of semicolons, joining independent clauses together:

Summer after summer, the river didn't seem to change much—the rope swing was usually where we left it. (Sunset 8)

Like any aspect of written language, basic syntactic punctuation is learned over time, often with little explicit instruction. Almost all students, for example—whether accomplished writers or not—know how to use terminal punctuation (periods, question marks, exclamation marks), quotation marks, commas for items on a list or for introductory phrases, colons for lists. Very few, however, know how to use rhetorical punctuation—punctuation as a crafting tool to add an extra layer of meaning to their text. Dawkins (1995) describes punctuation as a set of choices writers make to guide the reader to their intended meaning. The three principles he sets forth—simplified below—are easy to present in a composition classroom, provided students know how to identify an independent clause (Weaver 144) using the following structural tests (developed by Noguchi) rather than the traditional sentence-as-a-complete-thought definition:

—an independent clause can be made into a Yes/No Question;

—an independent clause can have a meaningful Tag Question attached to it;

—an independent clause can be placed into the frame: I know that _____.

For example, we know that Dillard's construction

              The skin on my mother's face was smooth, fair and tender (21)

is an independent clause because it can be made into a Yes/No Question (“Was the skin on my mother's face smooth, fair and tender?”) or it can include a Tag Question (“The skin on my mother's face was smooth, fair and tender, wasn't it?”); it can also be put into the appropriate frame (“I know that the skin on my mother's face was smooth, fair and tender”). Using the same tests, we can see that the construction “Which is hard to explain” is not an independent clause because none of the tests described above will work.

         These structural tests are necessary since the punctuation guidelines that Dawkins suggests do assume that students can distinguish independent clauses from other word groups. The first principle that Dawkins presents is that of a hierarchy of punctuation marks based on the level of separation they provide: periods, question marks and exclamation marks provide maximum separation; semicolons, dashes and colons medium separation; commas or no mark provide minimum separation, hence connection.

         For example, the choice between a period and a semicolon is more rhetorical than syntactic. If the writer wants to emphasize sentences by separating them with terminal punctuation, then the period is the obvious choice; if, on the other hand, the writer wants to emphasize the connectedness of two clauses, the semicolon is the appropriate choice.  

         Dawkins’s second principle involves the functions of the marks—what constructions they can separate. Periods and semicolons separate independent clauses; dashes and colons separate either independent clauses or independent clauses from dependent elements; commas separate dependent elements from independent clauses.

         Finally, Dawkins states that writers choose to raise or lower punctuation marks in order to emphasize separateness or connectedness between elements, respectively.

         We can see these principles at work when we look at the following sentence from Dillard's An American Childhood:

         Adults had misshapen, knuckly hands loose in their skin like               bones in bags; it was a wonder they could open jars. (20)

Clearly, Dillard wanted to emphasize the connectedness of those two clauses and that's why she chose the semicolon instead of a period. As teachers, we need to show students the rhetorical power of punctuation conventions, as well as the effect of violating (flouting) those conventions. Intentional run-ons and fragments, for example, appear in a number of texts (and I continually ask students to hunt for other examples in any non-school publications available to them—newspapers, magazines, popular books, websites):

We were whole, we were pleasing to ourselves. (Dillard 20)

Ellie sometimes liked to call Joe her big brother. But never aloud. (Rylant 20)

I will die for you if it will save you. Anything. (Paulsen 7)

Just days before leaving, he wanted to let off some steam. About the lowly status of the arts in Portland. (The Sunday Oregonian, July 13, 2003, Arts Section: 1)

Are we to consider these errors? Absolutely not. Instead, we are to see them as part of the writer's craft, as one more technique the writer used to advance the meaning of a text. By using a period and creating a fragment, Rylant and Paulsen have chosen to provide maximum separation for emphasis and focus. On the other hand, by using a comma to join independent clauses, Dillard has chosen to emphasize the meaning connection between the two clauses.
         Obviously, there is a fine line between error and craft, depending on knowledge and intention: a writer must want to emphasize a particular construction in a particular context and the reader must recognize that decision as a deliberate move, as evidence of craft, similar to other crafting techniques used in the text. If readers fail to recognize the intent behind these violations of conventions, they are likely to see fragments, run-ons and non-conventional punctuation in general as “very serious” errors (as Hairston found out) instead of seeing them as rhetorical choices. The responsibility then lies with both writers and readers: writers must provide the rhetorical punctuation clues, but readers must know how to interpret them appropriately and how to use them to arrive at the intended meaning.



The other questions my composition students ask—about using “and” to begin their sentences or using “I” in their writing—point to another aspect of conventions and mechanics, namely sentence structure and word choice. A number of their instructors are well versed in prescriptive grammar—the grammar that prescribes a single form that a sentence should take—and believe that their role is to preserve the “purity” of the English language, refusing to accept one of the basic tenets of linguistics, that all languages change. According to these instructors, then, any deviation from prescriptive principles leads to improper writing, to constructions that must be eradicated if the students are to master Standard Written English. So they perpetuate the use of the mythrules (Schuster), the prescriptive rules that have no place in writing instruction. In fact, not obeying the mythrules leads to better writing, as Katie Wood Ray has shown—writing that is carefully crafted, writing that is appropriate for a particular rhetorical context.

         For example, using “and” to begin a sentence provides a link to the preceding context but also allows the writer to emphasize that particular sentence by setting it apart through punctuation. And this is exactly what Rylant does:

Sometimes he'd send them a picture. He had grown a beard. And in one picture, he was holding a board on which sat a live (so he said) scorpion. (21)

Similarly, the Sunset writer of the following passage

The region's other great water recreation is river rafting. The raftable section of the Salmon River below Stanley is a tame class II family adventure. But the area's greatest attraction is its hiking. (30)

chose to begin the last sentence with “but” in order to provide contrast with the preceding sentences as well as emphasis by creating a separate sentence

        The list of mythrules seems consistent across students and involves either sentence structure or word choice; the most common mythrules I hear (in addition to the ones discussed above) include not using passive, not beginning sentences with “there” or “it,” not having one-sentence paragraphs, and not using “to be” verbs. Having to remember these mythrules creates discomfort for novice writers and brings a sense of inadequacy to their writing. The solution? Instead of overwhelming students with these mythrules, we should demystify the rules and exploit them for stylistic effect; we should show, in other words, how violating these mythrules can actually lead to elegant, crafted sentences.


a. Sentence structure

Generally, moving an element out of its expected position into an unexpected position puts it in a position of focus and emphasis: this emphasis is achieved either by simply moving elements to the front (fronting) or by restructuring sentences and creating focus positions (passive constructions, “there” constructions, or cleft sentences).


Passive: Using a passive construction emphasizes the result of the action and can contribute to the thematic connection of a piece:

The area is still known for two classic Western Salmon runs that, like the gold, are all but played out. Redfish Lake was named for one of those runs. (Sunset 28)

There:   Beginning with “there” allows the writer to move the subject from its low-emphasis position into a high-focus position inside the predicate:

There have been other great river days since then. (Sunset 8)  

It: In cleft sentences beginning with “it,” the focus is on the construction following the “to be” verb; these constructions are particularly useful for emphasizing contrast. For instance, if I say

         “It was the vibrancy of the city that first lured me here,”

the emphasis is on “vibrancy” as if to clarify that it wasn't something else that the reader might have expected (like the beautiful scenery).  


Fronting: Moving a modifier (word, phrase or clause) to the beginning of a sentence brings it to the limelight, capturing the reader's attention:

Sleek despite her age, this is Cobra, a retired 284-foot Russian submarine.   (Sunset 34)

When her family started using that door as the main entrance, Murray dressed it up with some favourite containers.   ( Sunset 60)  

Out of Order Adjectives:  

Either way you'll enjoy the bounty—natural and baked—of the Northwest. (Sunset 44) 

One-sentence paragraphs: When a sentence is set off as its own paragraph, it is emphasized:

He let the tiller go again and with one hand on the wooden handrail that was bolted to the top of the cabin he clambered forward, impatient to be sailing, heading home, away from this place in the sea where Owen's ashes were floating. (Paulsen 34)


b.   Word Choice

Mythrules that involve word choice bring a sense of prohibition to students much in the same way mythrules on sentence structure do; and once again, instead of teaching by prohibiting certain forms of language, we can teach by showing the craftsmanship of carefully selected words. For instance, instead of prohibiting forms of the verb “to be,” we can show students the striking energy that active verbs can bring to a sentence:

We got a lovely view of the downtown skyline from the park's seawall walk, as in-line skaters and joggers whizzed past. (Sunset 41)

Instead of prohibiting vague adjectives like “interesting,” we can give our students examples of more precise and striking modifiers at work:

         An artist was piling sea-worn rocks into gravity-defying stone               spires. (Sunset 41)


         And instead of prohibiting the use of “I,” we can show students when to use it successfully and when to leave it out. In the following sentence, for example,

Kicking off my boots and settling into a rope-slung chair . . . , I am, after another day of high-mountain hiking and fishing, happy. (Sunset 25)

the writer uses “I” in order to set a scene, to emphasize his presence in that scene and his extreme contentment. Academic writers often use the first person to heighten the honesty of their work, to acknowledge their situatedness—that is, they want to clarify the limitations of their particular perspective or ideological position, the way in which their intellectual passions and commitments have been shaped by specific social, cultural, and historical realities. However, a student who begins every other sentence in an essay with “I think” or “I believe” often inadvertently achieves something quite different—not an intensification of the “I” but an erasure of it. The repetition of “I think” can create a hedging or cautious distancing effect—that is, instead of feeling the strong presence of the “I” writing the essay and that author's historical position and commitment to his or her ideas or feelings, we feel instead a peculiar absence of the “I,” as if the repeated phrases are implying “but this is just what I think; you don't need to take it seriously.” Presumably, the author of an essay thinks or believes every declarative sentence in it, so such phrases can be not only unnecessary and distracting, but irritatingly tentative.


Where Does This Lead Us?   — A Productive Way to Look at Flouting Conventions

It is clear that we should rethink our positions about conventions and their flouting: conventions are part of a continuum, ranging from basic, syntactic choices writers make to more advanced rhetorical choices. As such, then, they are an integral part of style, of the distinctive, idiosyncratic choices writers make to create meaning for their readers. Because of their contribution to style, then, we could consider conventions similar to dialects: we each have our own dialect range, and we can adjust dialects to fit the discourse context and the image we want to project.

         Choosing a non-standard dialect form is often a mark of extra meaning; similarly, choosing to flout conventions can be a mark of intent-to-craft, of using punctuation and mechanics as part of style.
         In a classroom where conventions are seen as tendencies and as evidence of craft, students don't ask whether fragments or passive sentences are allowed; rather their questions focus on what to use, what is the best choice they can make to fit the rhetorical situation.



Works Cited

Bolton, W.F.   A Living Language; The History and Structure of
          English . New York, NY:   McGraw/Hill, 1982.

Crystal, D.   The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English
          Language . New York, NY:   Cambridge University Press,

Dawkins, John.   “Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool.” CCC 46.4
          (1995):   533-548.

Dillard, A.   An American Childhood .    New York:   Harper and
          Row, 1987.

Hairston, M.   “Not All Errors Are Created Equal:   Non-Academic
          Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage.”
          College English   43, 1981: 794-806

Noguchi, Rei.   Grammar and the Teaching of Writing:
          Limits and Possibilities.   Urbana, IL:   National Council of
          Teachers of English, 1991.

O'Hare, F. and E. Kline.   Modern Writer's Handbook ,
          4th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1996.

Paulsen, G.    Voyage of the Frog .   New York:   Bantam
          Doubleday, 1989.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan
          Svartvik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English
          Language. London: Longman, 1985.

Rylant, C.   A Blue-Eyed Daisy .   New York: Alladin Paperbacks,

Schuster, E. H.   Breaking the Rules.   Liberating Writers
          Through Innovative Grammar
  Instruction.   Portsmouth, NH:   Heinemann.   2003.


Stott, R. and P.Chapman.   Grammar and Writing. Malaysia:
          Longman, 2001. Sunset Magazine. July 2003.


Weaver,   C.   Teaching Grammar in Context .   Portsmouth,
          NH: Boynton/Cook, 1996.


Wood Ray, K.   Wondrous Words:   Writers and Writing in the
          Elementary Classroom .   Urbana, IL:   National Council of
  Teachers of English, 1999.


Student Resources

Bare Bones Writer's Grammar

Glossary: Key Words for a Writer's Grammar

Answer to Question in Chapter 5

Readings - The Place of Run-Ons and Dashes in Writing

Readings - Public Grammar and Private Grammar

Feedback Sheets

Link to Editor Software

MLA Documentation

Reading, Writing, Reference Links