First, know that it caused me psychological pain to type that title. It’s a run-on sentence, you see. There are two complete thoughts (“Let’s talk about run-on sentences” and “how do you know one when you see one?”), but they run together with only a comma between them. The grammar is just fine. It’s the mechanics that are nonstandard (“wrong,” if you prefer)–except for that question mark at the end, and the apostrophe for the contraction of “let us.” (You knew that’s what “let’s” means, right? Good.)
Second, here’s why I want to talk about them: people don’t understand what they are. Oh, when they’re short, like the one in this title, they get it right. But when a sentence goes on for what the average reader considers “paragraph length,” that reader assumes it HAS to be a run-on. And many times, that reader is wrong.
Let’s look at a splendiferous example of what I mean, from Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station. (I want to thank him here for posting his rules about using his material in plain sight on his site. It made my morning much easier than it could have been.) Here’s the link to the whole post. Now, here’s the text in question.
But then these are the same drooling cross-eyed dipshits who think a billionaire New York real-estate developer who builds tacky casinos and swanky country clubs staffed by foreign workers, a Reality TV host whose shows are an hour-long fuck-fest of tits and ass and self-serving backstabbing narcissism portrayed by the personification of some backwoods West Virginia county fair demolition derby cheered on by drunken rednecks in cow shit spackled overalls, married to a string of vapid trophy wives, buoyed up incestuous nepotism, and surrounded by a scurrying host of toadies, sycophants, ass kissers, discredited fringe political hacks, cashiered generals, Wall Street crooks, war profiteers and foreign interests, a guy who has never shown the least charity or nobility or degree of compassion, a guy who daily craps in a golden toilet, yeah, that guy, is actually going to look out for their interests from his penthouse windows.
THIS SENTENCE IS FUCKING BRILLIANT.
It’s also grammatically correct, and is not a run-on.
Allow me to dissect it for you. Please follow along. Go get yourself a drink before we begin, because it’s going to take a little time.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
“But then these” — that’s the complete subject of the sentence. The simple subject, the one word that we can say is THE subject of the sentence, is “these” (a pronoun). The simple verb is “are.” And I love that beginning preposition. (So much, I just used one myself. Heh.)
Who are these? “the same drooling crosseyed dipshits.” This is the predicate nominative, to be all grammatic-y and stuff. “These are dipshits.” Honestly? That’s the entire base sentence. Everything else is icing, extra, more information about the dipshits and their thought process. Which brings us to:
“who think” — That’s a relative clause. Yeah, it’s only two words, but “who” is a relative pronoun (related to “dipshits”) and “think” is the verb. A subject and a verb make a clause, whether it’s dependent or independent. This one’s dependent. Hang on, because we’re about to find out what the dipshits think.
“a billionaire New York real-estate developer” — This is an object. Some will argue that there’s a “that” missing (insisting it should read “who think THAT a billionaire … developer”), but they would be mistaken. We understand the “that” syntactically. This phrase, the beginning of a cavalcade of phrases and clauses that modify either “developer” or another noun in an appositive that modifies “developer,” is the object of that understood “that.”
“who builds tacky casinos and swanky country clubs staffed by foreign workers” — This relative clause modifies “developer.” Why is it a clause? Because we have the relative pronoun “who” and the verb “builds.” What does he build? Tacky casinos and swanky country clubs (that are staffed by foreign workers).
“a Reality TV host whose shows are an hour-long fuck-fest of tits and ass and self-serving backstabbing narcissism portrayed by the personification of some backwoods West Virginia county fair demolition derby cheered on by drunken rednecks in cow shit spackled overalls,” — This is another appositive (a noun phrase, in this case, that stands for another noun, the aforementioned “developer”) composed of a noun (“host”) followed by a long, involved, grammatically solid and correct relative clause beginning with the relative pronoun “whose,” the noun “shows,” the verb “are,” and continuing with a colorful description of said shows, employing more clauses. Let’s pull those apart, though. “Fuck-fest” is the predicate noun that relates to “shows” AND the subject of its own dependent clause, of which “portrayed” is the verb. Who are they portrayed by? Enter another dependent clause, of which “personification” is the subject, “cheered on” is the phrasal verb, and the entire clause is the object of the preposition “by.”
Whew. Take a sip of that drink and maybe hit the toilet, because we’re not done yet.
“married to a string of vapid trophy wives, buoyed up [by] incestuous nepotism” — Each of these modifies “developer” again, but this time instead of clauses we have phrases (“married” and “buoyed” are the preterite forms of “marry” and “buoy”). I took the liberty of inserting “by” in the second to improve understanding and because I’m certain Mr. Wright intended it to be there, but it was accidentally omitted. Even the best writers miss a word or two now and then.
“and surrounded by a scurrying host of toadies, sycophants, ass kissers, discredited fringe political hacks, cashiered generals, Wall Street crooks, war profiteers and foreign interests” — Another preterite verb, “surrounded,” the preposition “by,” and a string of objects of that preposition all make for another phrase to modify “developer.”
We still don’t have a run-on sentence. There’s one subject, “these,” one verb, “are,” and one predicate nominative, “dipshits.” Everything after that relates to the clause beginning with “who think” and goes on from there, all perfectly grammatical (and AMAZING to read, to this grammarist and editor). Let’s keep going. Maybe we’ll find a run-on in the last part, but I don’t think so.
“a guy who has never shown the least charity or nobility or degree of compassion” — A wonderful appositive, this is both grammatically correct and properly used. There’s another clause in there, a dependent one with “who” as its subject and “has [never] shown” as its verb, but still no run-on.
“a guy who daily craps in a golden toilet” — Another appositive describing the developer, it contains another relative clause (“who” is the subject, “craps” is the verb), but … no, still all correct.
“yeah, that guy, is actually going to look out for their interests from his penthouse windows.” “Yeah” is an interjection, and “that guy” another relative phrase going back to “developer.” The part beginning with “is actually going to” is the verb associated with “developer” in the clause introduced by the syntactically understood “that.” Remember that? It was way back up there at the start, after “who think.”
Stripping out all the appositive phrases and clauses, we have: “These are the same dipshits who think a billionaire real estate developer is actually going to look out for their interests.”
And nary a run-on sentence in sight.
I have to say, though, that the complete version is superior (and vastly more entertaining to read), and a shining example of a complex sentence. Not a compound one. Complex.
Maybe I’ll get into that later on. Right now, I want a drink.