Monday, September 13, 2010

Comma Splices: How to Identify and Fix Them


 Brianna says:
I have always loved reading and language arts classes, and have always received good grades on writing assignments. But last week my creative writing teacher told me, "You seem to be the queen of the comma splices." I got the feeling it's not a compliment, my teacher doesn't like the way I write. Can you give me some tips on how to win him over?

Since you happened to use a comma splice in your e-mail, I am going to give your teacher the benefit of the doubt on this one. You asked for tips on how to win him over, so here goes:
  • Listen to your teacher. He sounds like a good editor, and good editors turn good writers into better writers. 
  • Be open to constructive criticism from trusted sources.
  • Once you understand what comma splices are, try to self-edit your writing. With some practice, you'll drop the habit. Nothing makes a teacher happier than a student who has learned something.

Identifying comma splices: A comma splice happens when you use a comma to join two independent clauses. That's a no-no in grammar. Commas are used for separating, not connecting. In Brianna's e-mail, here's the comma splice:
I got the feeling it's not a compliment, my teacher doesn't like the way I write.
That sentence contains two independent clauses. Each clause contains a subject and a predicate and forms a complete thought, so it could stand on its own as a sentence.

  • I got the feeling it's not a compliment 
  • My teacher doesn't like the way I write

The comma splice is a very common mistake. Luckily, it is easily avoided.

Quick fixes:

  • The easiest solution is to write two separate sentences. I got the feeling it's not a compliment. My teacher doesn't like the way I write.
  • You can join independent clauses with a comma if one clause begins with a conjunction I got the feeling it's not a compliment, and my teacher doesn't like the way I write.
  • You can join independent clauses with a semicolon to show that they are closely related.  I got the feeling it's not a compliment; my teacher doesn't like the way I write.

From the comments: Stan points out that writers such as Sam Beckett and Garrison Keillor have long used comma splices as a stylistic device in their writing. And he's right, of course! For more on comma splices in literature, check out his post, Oh, the Splices You'll See!

15 comments:

  1. Comma splices aren't always a mistake — sometimes they're used as a literary device, and I think it's important to acknowledge the distinction. Splices are certainly unsuitable in some contexts, but to dismiss them automatically is misguided.

    For what it's worth, I've been collecting examples of comma splices used by writers such as Beckett, Wells, Thurber, Hesse, Burgess, Banville, and Saramago. I'd supply a link, but your blog doesn't seem to allow them. Interested parties can search for "Oh, the Splices You’ll See!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for this comment. I'm an honors student at my high school and the poetry we analyze in class contains these splices which causes my fellow classmates to utilize the splice in their writing. "Monkey see, monkey do."

      Delete
  2. Fair play to you, Stan. Everyone should read Beckett. Still, it must be said that he had a very unorthodox writing style and was the king of endless run-on sentences. And let's be honest, we're not all Sam Becketts. Surely Beckett *knew* what a comma splice was; he *chose* to use it. If any of us used Beckett's run-on style in a school essay or company report, we would not be heralded as the next great literary figure but as someone who couldn't communicate clearly.

    This blog is intended as a teaching tool for young writers. Once they learn why and how *not* to splice, they can use it for literary effect if they choose. :-) Fair enough?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for your gracious response, Snarky, and for the link to my post. I should have left Beckett out of my argument! As I wrote on my blog, advice of the leave-comma-splices-to-the-experts variety is fine and helpful for learners, but it oversimplifies matters by failing to reflect the subtlety and complexity with which skilled writers use the technique. This post didn't (originally) mention the fact that comma splices can be used for literary effect; it just called them a mistake and a "no-no".

    And that's my point. Comma splices aren't necessarily a mistake, and I think language learners might appreciate having this pointed out, if only as an aside. It might motivate them to learn more, and read more, instead of making them afraid to commit a supposed error. A label like that tends to stick and become doctrine.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Stan, the issue here is about the difference between two styles of writing. And, I mean major style differences. There's even a name for both of them descriptivists and prescriptivists.

    Punctuation as used today is far different from generations ago. Commas, colons, semi-colons, ellipsis, and such were not used as they are now. People like Beckett wrote using that old style to give flare and flavor to their writings. It has nothing to do with how we are taught today and everything to do with how the words flow. This is great for poetry and such. Not so great for a modern novel, unless it is used in dialogue.

    A simple search for descriptivists and/or prescriptivists will give you all kinds of information on the two.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ok...but what's with all this crazy wall posting and emailing, is the humble mobile phone not good enough for you?
    Please advise - does this sentence have a comma splice in it? My best friend and I hate the things as much as we hate, say, Comic Sans and Maths, and naturally we constantly try to catch each out. She claims that this comment, which I made on Facebook, contains one, but I'm not sure.
    Thankyou!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It contains two independent phrases that can be turned into separate sentences:

      ...but what's with all this crazy wall posting and emailing? Is the humble mobile phone not good enough for you?

      ...so yes, it does. If you want to join them, use a semicolon:

      ...but what's with all this crazy wall posting and emailing; is the humble mobile phone not good enough for you?

      Delete
  6. As far as I know -- taking into consideration that I am an ESL speaker/writer, albeit, proficient for that matter -- there is no run-on sentence in your statement: "...and naturally we constantly try to catch each out." because you used a coordinating conjunction after the comma. Using a semicolon is also correct: "My best friend and I hate the things as much as we hate, say, Comic Sans and Maths; naturally, we constantly try to catch each out. However, I think you missed a comma after the word naturally.

    Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
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