The Dicey Comma Splice

comma splice

Commas are slippery little buggers. Of all the punctuation marks, they’re the hardest to pin down. Oh, there are rules, but sometimes it is still hard to judge. One area where there should be no confusion, but people still can’t seem to get it right, is the comma splice.

I get looks of astonishment when I tell folks they can’t just stick two independent clauses together with nothing but an anemic comma. They don’t believe that a comma splice is a type of run-on sentence.

“Whaddaya mean I can’t do it? I do it all the time!”

“Yes, yes you do. Frequency doesn’t equal correctness, you know.”

The problem with comma splices is that everyone seems to think there’s nothing wrong with them. Electronic grammar checkers don’t catch them. There’s even a YouTube video that declares it’s a proper way to use a comma. (See, you can’t believe everything that’s on YouTube!)

An author that I like typically has about 50 percent of her novels as comma splices. I enjoy her content immensely, but I still have that editorial voice working away.

“What in the name of all the grammar gods is she thinking?” it will scream as I’m trying to follow an intricate plot device.

“Shut up! I’m trying to enjoy this.”

“Seriously, didn’t they have any kind of editor for those books? What is she trying to do?”

“I don’t know. I’m not the editor. Will you please be quiet?!”

Authors will break grammar rules sometimes for effect, but they do it consciously for a specific reason. We have to know the rule in order to know why we’re breaking it. I have a hard time justifying what poetic license writers are taking when most of their work is filled with comma splices, especially when they’re so easy to fix.

Too many people write comma splices, they don’t know what they’re doing.

Here we have two independent clauses with a poor, little comma trying to keep them together. How do we help it out?

One thing we can do is make it two sentences: Too many people write comma splices. They don’t know what they’re doing.

Or, if we don’t want the reader to completely stop, we can replace the comma with a heartier semicolon: Too many people write comma splices; they don’t know what they’re doing.

We can help out the comma with a coordinating conjunction, one of the FANBOYS: Too many people write comma splices, but they don’t know what they’re doing.

If it’s a certain flow we’re looking for, we can always opt for the popular dependent clause approach: Too many people write comma splices because they don’t know what they’re doing.

Get the picture?

“Look! There’s another freaking comma splice!”

Sigh.

Writer, correct thyself!

Last time, I talked about how important revision is. What we write serves as our introduction to strangers. Just like in a job interview, first impressions are important.

Editing and proofreading are important parts of revision. Although the bulk of our efforts should be spent on organization, we mustn’t forget the details. Think of it as a wedding cake. The structure is vital, but it’s the details that make everyone go, “Ahhh!”

“If I make a mistake, how can I know that I’ve made it let alone correct it?”

Never fear! It’s usually not as hard as we want to believe.

The first thing to remember is that we begin writing by just trying to get the information or story down. We never expect that first effort to be perfect because we know we’ll go back and revise it.

We all have weak spots in our writing that we should become familiar with. I know that I tend to repeat certain words and phrases. I also have a hard time spelling certain words (truly, judgment, etc.). Then there’s my tendency toward overblown vocabulary, parenthetical statements, and convoluted sentences. I know I do all this, so I look for these when I’m revising.

Spelling and Word Use

For those who have trouble spelling and using the correct words, there’s good news – and bad news. Most word processing software has spell check and grammar check capabilities. Spell check is very helpful, especially for those of us whose minds work faster than our fingers. I love it when it changes “adn” to “and” automatically.

However, spell check doesn’t know the difference between homonyms, words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. Their, there, and they’re are major culprits as are its and it’s. Learn how each should be used and work to always use them correctly. (One of my pet peeves is alot, which is not a real word.)

Sentence Structure

Lots of people have problems with sentence structure. They either tend to write sentence fragments, or they write run-on sentences.

Fragments often happen when we start a sentence with a dependent clause and neglect to write in the independent clause that it depends on. This is why many people were told in elementary school not to begin a sentence with “because.” Because he was the cutest and nicest boy at the school dance. That is not a sentence. We are left asking, “So?”

Think of fragments as building a hot rod, except that you neglect to put the right rear hub and wheel on. It looks cool, but it isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes we want to use fragments for effect, but we can’t make the mistake of thinking we can get away with it all the time. Then it goes from writing for effect to sloppiness.

Run-on sentences come in two forms: fused and comma splices. Fused sentences happen when we just stick a bunch of independent clauses together without giving the reader clues, through punctuation, that they are different thoughts. I saw a program about Scotland yesterday it was interesting it talked about kilts and whiskey it talked about food including haggis it had a segment about Scottish games the contestants threw a bunch of things the caber, or a big pole, was the most unusual.

Comma splices are way too common. Yes, I know; nobody likes, commas. They’re a pain in the neck. However, sometimes we ask the comma to carry too heavy a burden. Harry and Maude went to the movies, they saw “Guardians of the Universe.” Here we are asking the comma to hold up two independent clauses on its own. It needs help. Either put in a coordinating conjunction after the comma or replace the comma with a semicolon. (By the way, grammar check doesn’t recognize comma splices as grammatically incorrect – one of the many reasons why we shouldn’t rely on it too much.)

Listen, this is not rocket science. Does it take effort? Yes! Is it easy? No, but then writing well is never really easy. Yet the payoff for all this hard work is that our readers have a much better impression of us.