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Semicolons and other ways to seem literate in English

One problem I often come across in translating from Russian to English is combining or breaking up Russian sentences that are sentence fragments or run-on sentences in English. For the sake of native Russian speakers writing in English – and English speakers whose memories of grammar lessons from grade school are a little fuzzy – I will go over what these are.

The distinction between a complete sentence and a fragment or a run-on in English is a grammatical, not an aesthetic one: you can have short but complete sentences (“Come here”, where the imperative implies the subject ‘you’) and long but well-structured ones (like this sentence). In almost all cases, only a complete sentence should be adorned with a full stop/period.

Punctuation is essential to get right. It shapes the reader’s perception of the text on the level of first impressions: before readers even make it to the words, they will see the guillemots that automatically mark the text as foreign, the hyphens instead of en or em dashes that make it seem raw and unedited, or the American spelling with British punctuation that horrifies both kinds of reader. And, once they start reading, they will feel that something is off if what they expected to be a complete sentence breaks off unexpectedly, or if the author keeps stringing multiple sentences into one.

So, incomplete sentences and sentence fragments. (That was one, which I used to sound casual.) In order to put a period at the end of a phrase in English, turning it into a sentence, it should have a subject and a verb and, in the vague words of generations of schoolteachers, “express a complete thought”. That means that transitive verbs must have objects, and the sentence should not be just a dependent clause.


Ваня морковь принесет? Принесет.


Is Vanya going to bring the carrots? He is.


(Or “Will he? He will” – but definitely not the transitive “He will bring”.)


Sometimes, the comma that sets off a transition word can make the difference between a sentence fragment and a full sentence in an English translation:


При этом у всей семьи Лазаревых посттравматический шок.


Meanwhile, the whole Lazarev family has post-traumatic shock.


Sometimes, a fragment needs to be connected to surrounding phrases:


Я готова контактировать с каждым из них. Лишь бы добиться результата.


I am ready to engage with each one of them, as long as we get results.


On the other hand, English is also stricter in dealing with run-ons and comma splices. English sentences should not contain two independent clauses joined only by a comma, with no conjunctions – you need to use a semicolon, colon, en dash (British English)/em dash (American English), or period to split them up, as I am doing here.


Правила компании едины для всех, двойные стандарты и любой вид дискриминации  –  неприемлемы.


Company rules are the same for everyone; double standards and discrimination of any kind are unacceptable.


Of course, spoken English and texting often feature sentence fragments –


 Because I said so.


– and ellipses, where some information (like the subject) must be inferred.


Heading to Ikea this weekend, need me to pick anything up?


Poorly transcribed spoken English might include run-ons, but a good transcriber knows how to avoid them by breaking sentences up.


I’m an honest communist. I’ve been a member of the party all my life.


What’s important to keep in mind when translating is that sentences with comma splices or transition-words-turned-dependent-clause-marker-words are not wrong in written Russian, but they should not usually stay this way when translated into English. While sentence fragments and run-ons can be used for emphasis in poems and (sparingly) in journalistic/creative non-fiction, if you use them too often, you will look, as they say in Russian, ‘illiterate’.


Author: Kate Seidel

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