Self-editing is a major step for any writer hoping to publish a piece of work. Many of us will likely also seek out additional editing help from beta readers and professional editors. Some of the editing is more large scale, like cutting unnecessary scenes and adding more detail, but at the later stages of editing we get down to the nitty-gritty. When dealing with grammatical errors, where should you start? Here’s one of the most common grammatical errors and likely the best place to begin when self-editing.

How to Identify Nouns and Verbs
First, it is essential to know the different parts that make up a complete sentence, also referred to as an independent clause. To avoid many grammatical errors, a basic knowledge of sentence structure will significantly help. For a complete sentence to stand by itself, it requires both a noun and a verb. A noun is the main subject of a sentence. A verb is the main action of a sentence. For example, in the sentence “She ran several miles,” the word “She” is the noun and “ran” is the verb. The trick to identifying this is searching for the action word first, or the word that is doing something. In this case, “ran” is the action word. That’s your verb. Then you need to find the actor of the sentence, or the one causing the verb to occur. In this example, “She” is the person completing the action. This is your noun. This is a very simplistic description of identifying a noun and verb, but this little knowledge will go a long way in your self-editing process.

Run-on Sentences
Clarity means everything in the writing world. No matter how fantastic your ideas are, if they cannot come across to your readers on the paper, then they fail to affect your readers. The main perpetrator of first-degree clarity murder is run-on sentences. Run-on sentences are two independent clauses (so two sentences with a noun and verb that can stand by themselves) pushed together. The problem with this is that independent clauses need punctuation to separate them for clarity reasons. Here’re some examples:

Incorrect Example: I love to walk my dog the park down the street is the best place for it.

Correction: I love to walk my dog. The park down the street is the best place for it.

Incorrect Example: Taxes increased in recent years therefore I plan to move soon.

Correction: Taxes increased in recent years. Therefore, I plan to move soon.

Notice that both incorrect examples take two complete sentences and put them together without a period to separate them. In the first example, “I love to walk my dog” can stand by itself because it has a noun (I) and a verb (walk); the sentence that follows, “The park down the street is the best place for it,” is also an independent clause because it has a noun (park) and a verb (is). The second example is similar to this, as there are two complete sentences within this example as well. The use of “therefore” in the sentence often trips people up. “Therefore” is a transition word in this example and by itself cannot be used to combine two complete sentences. Because it is a complete sentence, and the sentence that follows is also complete, a period should be used to split them up.

Punctuation Between Complete Sentences
In the above examples, I used periods to separate the independent clause. Periods are the simplest form of ending sentences. However, there are also two other main ways of avoiding run-on sentences. Both of these examples join independent clauses, making it acceptable to have the ideas together.

First, commas are an excellent way to combine two independent clauses. However, it is important to remember that you need both a comma AND a coordinating conjunction to combine two sentences. Coordinating conjunctions are connecting words used to relate one sentence to another. The most popular examples of coordinating conjunctions are as follows: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These seven coordinating conjunctions are often referred to as FANBOYS to remember them better.

Example: I ate apple pie, and I went to the movies.

Example: I usually stay up late at night, but last night I fell asleep before dinner.

In this first example, “and” is the coordinating conjunction and a comma precedes it. This is a correct way to combine the two sentences. In the second example, “but” is the coordinating conjunction and a comma precedes it. This is also correct.

The other alternative to periods and commas is semicolons. Semicolons can be used to separate two complete sentences and function the same way as periods. The difference is that semicolons show relation between the two sentences. Usually, when two sentences are combined with a semicolon, they are directly related.

Example: Regardless of their size, spiders always terrify me; this is why I ran away screaming when I saw one at your house yesterday.

In this example, the first sentence and the second sentence are both complete sentences that can stand by themselves. However, they are related enough where a semicolon can be used instead of a period. Semicolons are typically used depending on personal taste, but they certainly are useful sentence variety tools for writers.

The Long Sentence Myth
Somewhere in grade school one of my teachers warned my class against using long sentences. This was to minimize run-on sentences, as often run-on sentences are lengthy because they include several sentences jammed together, and to help us master simple sentences. Well, this reasoning was never explained to me and many of my peers growing up, and as a result, many students avoided long sentences altogether. I still hear even grown adults bring up this subject.

So, here I am, clarifying it for once and for all: Length does NOT equal run-on sentences. The important thing to remember here is to avoid run-on sentences, using what I just taught you, and not to fear using longer sentences. So long as you use proper punctuation between two complete sentences, you should be fine with using longer sentences when desired.