I’m out here in the desert, cocking my thumb with my Beat buddy Jack. We’ve been on the road counting Nash Ramblers to entertain ourselves ever since we left Vegas, seven so far, but we've seen not one car for the past hour. The sun blisters the backs of our necks, and our mood has soured until we’re screaming at each other. As you might guess, it’s about periods. Jack has run out, and he wants mine.
He’s kicking up dust and spitting out “Tarnation!” and “Son of a cactus!” because reviewers accuse him of writing “run-on sentence images.” “I never write run-on sentences!” he yells. “Gimme those dadburned periods!”
Jack’s sentences (and yours and mine) comprise phrases and clauses. A phrase contains a noun but not a verb: under the sun. A clause includes a noun and a verb. A clause can be dependent and dwell within a sentence: despite the sun blistering the backs of our necks; or it can be independent and form a sentence by itself: The sun blisters the backs of our necks. The problem arises when we jam two or more of these independent clauses into one sentence and give our readers no clue where one thought ends and the next begins. This is called a run-on sentence.
As we shall see, Jack prevents run-on sentences by using:
1) a period to separate different thoughts;
2) a semicolon to separate closely related thoughts; and
3) a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) to join thoughts.
Jack has a lot of thoughts, so he needs a lot of periods, semicolons, commas, and conjunctions. He’d brought a bunch with him on the road, but by Vegas he had used them all. He knows I keep a few thousand squirreled away in the Gore-Tex lining of my hiking boots, just in case. He needs some now, but so do many other people, like the insurance broker who wrote this sentence:
I was really embarrassed as we had asked the question initially we were told it was not possible so that was what we told the client.
She needs a period to separate the first two thoughts; a comma followed by a conjunction to join the second and third thoughts; and a semicolon to separate the third and fourth closely related thoughts:
I was really embarrassed. We had asked the question initially, but we were told it was not possible; so that was what we told the client.
Earlier, Jack’s sidekick Neal Cassady had written a letter to Jack, a long, stream-of-consciousness missive, now known as “The Joan Anderson letter.” Kerouac later said that after reading Cassady’s free-flowing prose, he tossed an earlier draft of On the Road and rewrote it in a similar stream-of-consciousness style, which he christened “Beat literature.” Cassady used many periods in the seminal letter, but he also wrote many run-on sentences:
It was pathetically clear how utterly weak she was, there seemed absolutely no blood left in her body. I stared and stared, she didn’t breathe, didn’t move; I would never have recognized her, she was a waxed mummy.
That’s where the two styles differ. The first edition of On the Road appeared in 1957, paginated and paragraphed and otherwise heavily edited for risqué content to avoid offending the sensibility of post-war America. Fifty years later, ON THE ROAD The Original Scroll was published exactly as Kerouac had written it: one page, no paragraphs, 120 feet long, with all sorts of boozing and drugging and fighting and frolicking. About fifty pages in we see:
Great laughter rang from all sides. I wondered what the Spirit of the Mountain was thinking; and looked up, and saw jackpines in the moon, and saw ghosts of old miners, and wondered about it. In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great western slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped, and led you to the Eastern Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. And beyond, beyond, over the Sierras the other side of Carson sink was bejeweled bay-encircled nightlike old Frisco of my dreams. We were situated on the roof of America and all we could do was yell. . . .
Free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness, Beat Literature, a startling new style. But no run-on sentences. To guide us through his thoughts and observations, Kerouac frames and carefully connects them with semicolons, commas, conjunctions, and periods. They travel light, and of late they’re becoming rare. Save them and keep them handy to guide your reader through your thoughts.
P.S. The original title punctuated: We Argue on the Road the Necessity of Periods. When We Come to a Stop, We Must Let Our Readers Know. Jack Wants Mine.