Why I hate the comma splice

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[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

There’s a nasty little punctuation habit that instantly gives your age away. It’s called the comma splice, and I’ve noticed it’s mostly used by writers under the age of 35.

I don’t blame them for not being able to punctuate properly. After all, it’s not their fault they were unfortunate enough to go to school after it was decided grammar was surplus to the requirements of a rounded education.

But, of all the punctuation crimes out there, it’s the comma splice that upsets me the most.

I’ll explain why in a minute, but first, for all you youngsters out there, what is a comma splice?

Simple: it’s when a comma is used to connect two independent clauses, an independent clause being a group of words that can stand by itself as a separate sentence.

Here are two examples I came across in a magazine recently:

Summer in Rome is always great fun, here are our suggestions for you to make the most of it.

Lastly, we should mention the Protestant cemetery in Testaccio, although a little bit of a walk from Trastevere, this hidden treasure is well worth a visit.

I only became aware of the comma splice’s existence about four or five years ago, but I have to tell you that it was a real loss of innocence for me to discover that people would actually think of writing like this.

Worse, I’ve noticed that non-sentences like the above have become pandemic in recent years. They’ve even started appearing on huge advertising billboards – a sign, perhaps, that even professional copywriters are using the comma splice.

There are a number of ways to correct the offending sentences quoted above. You could separate the independent clauses with a more forceful full stop.

Summer in Rome is always great fun. Here are our suggestions for you to make the most of it.

Lastly, we should mention the Protestant cemetery in Testaccio. Although a little bit of a walk from Trastevere, this hidden treasure is well worth a visit.

Or, in the first example, you could introduce a conjunction such as “so”:

Summer in Rome is always great fun, so here are our suggestions for you to make the most of it.

In the second example, a little rewrite introducing the relative pronoun “which” fixes the problem:

Lastly, we should mention the Protestant cemetery in Testaccio, which although a little bit of a walk from Trastevere, is a hidden treasure that’s well worth a visit.

If you’re still uncertain about what constitutes a comma splice – and how to fix one, do check out this useful exercise, which appears on the Bristol University website (presumably because students at even our better universities have poor grammar these days).

Why I hate the comma splice

What’s distressing about the prevalence of the comma splice is that it creates stream-of-consciousness babble in which unconnected thoughts run hyperactively into each other.

Furthermore, the comma splice betrays in its user a complete ignorance of how the English language works.

To avail yourself of the comma splice, you must have no grasp of what a sentence is. Which means you have no grasp of what a verb is. Or the subject of the sentence. Or the difference between dependent clauses and independent clauses. Or how to connect ideas with conjunctions. Or how to temper the flow of your copy with elegant introductory participial phrases.

(Yes, I’m aware that I’m punctuating clauses here as if they were full sentences. It’s done consciously to achieve a punchier style. Breaking the rules is fine if you understand them – and know why you’re breaking them.)

In short, use the comma splice and you’re telling me that you’re inarticulate, incapable of expressing ideas in a coherent way, and that you have no ear for the rhythms of the English language.

It surprises me, then, that such relatively minor infractions as apostrophe crimes, eccentric hyphenation and use of scare quotes elicit mouth-foaming fulmination among grammar geeks. Some of them even have whole blogs devoted to them.

Yet the far-more-troubling comma splice remains, as far as I’m aware, a relatively unremarked upon offence.

One might compare the difference in gravity to mistakes in music. An apostrophe crime, say, is the equivalent of a wrong note – a technical glitch that may elicit sniggers from your audience but won’t necessarily impair the piece as a whole.

A comma splice, however, is on a par with eccentric phrasing and being consistently one bar ahead of the rest of the band: your poor ear and general lack of musicianship will make your audience wince in pain.

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7 Responses to Why I hate the comma splice

  1. Fred H Schlegel June 12, 2009 at 2:52 pm #

    Maybe ‘stream-of-consciousness’ is the cause as well as the effect generated. People seem to think less about what they write with shorthand, instantaneous communication encouraging ‘press send’ before thought. Add that to early education efforts focused on output over form and we start to see a perfect storm where words just spew onto the page. And with that I go back to my own notebook to look for my own missteps.

    • Clare Lynch June 13, 2009 at 11:23 am #

      Fred, I hadn’t thought of it that way but I definitely think you’ve got a point there.

  2. susie June 12, 2009 at 6:32 pm #

    two questions…is is surplus or superfluous that you meant? and when using the dashing dash, isn’t it two hyphens joined? that being posed, i’ve noticed all ages and all nationalities using comma splices. and apparently no one knows how to use a ;. oh well…prescriptive vs. descriptive.

    • Clare Lynch June 13, 2009 at 11:22 am #

      Hi Susie

      I believe the correct expression is, indeed, “surplus to requirements”. “Superfluous to requirements” does occur, but it would be more correct and elegant to simply say “superfluous” rather than “superfluous to requirements”.

      I believe that two hyphens joined for the dashing dash, like the two-spaces-after-a-full-stop rule, goes back to the days of the manual typewriter. These days, one can insert an em dash (as it is called) by holding down the alt key when typing a hyphen. It works in Word, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to translate into WordPress, which is possibly why my em dashes have become hyphens – apologies for any distress caused!

      Don’t get me started on the semicolon – I long gave up trying to explain that one to people! I do think it’s best kept for academic writing anyway.

  3. Dave June 16, 2009 at 5:48 pm #

    @Susi @Clare
    To use an em dash in WordPress (or any other XHTML site) you have to use what’s known as its ‘character entity reference’ which, in this case, is —.

  4. MW Bewick July 9, 2009 at 10:33 am #

    I did find the semi-colon useful in linking clauses when writing academic papers. However I’m finding I use it to a greater extent in writing fiction. It’s really handy if you want to move seamlessly from third person narrated description to interior monologue/thought and resolves some issues of “stream-of-consciousness babble in which unconnected thoughts run hyperactively into each other”. In other words can give direction to thinking/narration.

    “He went into the kitchen; the house was freezing and a bowl of soup would warm him up.”

    Things like that.

    • Clare Lynch July 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm #

      I only wish everyone else had your elegant grasp of the semi-colon. . .

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