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How to Avoid a Common Comma Error: The Comma Splice

And why sometimes, it’s not even an error.

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #371

The Exceptions Are Enough to Drive You Crazy

Finally, you could be confused about comma splices because there are a ton of exceptions to the rule.

You will see many, many examples of comma splices in published literature, for example. Edited literature. Famous literature. In her book  Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss says, “[S]o many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous.” She goes on to name Samuel Beckett, E.M. Forster, and Somerset Maugham as famous splicers.  (3) Language blogger Stan Carey has compiled on his site an almost overwhelmingly long list of comma splices from authors whose names you’d recognize.

Further, quite a few usage guides allow comma splices in some situations, making it almost a style choice. For examples, The Elements of Style says, “A comma is preferable when the clauses are very short and alike in form, or when the tone of the sentence is easy and conversational.”  (4) Their example is

Man proposes, God disposes.

This rule would also cover the famous sentence “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

I learned from John E. McIntyre’s blog that this type of construction can even be considered a rhetorical device, a figure of speech called “asyndeton.”

Usage writers Barbara Wallraff (5) and Bryan Garner (6) also both allow comma splices in similar circumstances, and The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage doesn’t outright approve of comma splices but notes that they are common in both old and new literature. (7)

Further, Wallraff, in her book Word Court, adds the less commonly seen, but I think reasonable suggestion that a comma can be used to join independent clauses when “the whole point of two clauses is to contrast negative and affirmative assertions.” To me, this is consistent with other instances in which you’re allowed to use a comma to show contrast. (5)

Her example is the sentence “It’s not a comet, it’s a meteor,” and it made me feel better about one of the sentences @cbee submitted as an example of a comma splice she had seen online:

The Editor and I don’t argue, we discuss. (8)

It didn’t annoy me,* and I felt like it was an appropriate use of a comma, but at  first I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized that it fit the comma-for-contrast rule. If I came across this sentence, I wouldn’t mark it wrong.

But @cbee would, and it does fit the simple definition of a comma splice.

That’s the funny and frustrating thing about comma splices and many topics in English usage—once you start digging, the rules aren’t as black and white as you thought, and they can hinge on subjective points such as what’s informal, or what’s short enough, or what’s enough contrast.

My quick and dirty tip is to learn to recognize basic comma splices and avoid them, but the more nuanced answer is that when you’re presented with a sentence that might be allowable under all the comma splice exceptions out there, think about the risks you’re willing to take. Does it matter to you whether some people will think you’ve made a mistake? Could you get in trouble if people think you’ve made a mistake? Or do you feel strongly that your sentence needs a comma instead of some other punctuation or even that taking out the comma will change the meaning? Weigh the benefits and risks, and if you’re comfortable with the balance, use a comma splice when it makes your writing better.

Mignon Fogarty is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girls' Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

References

1. Landon, B. Building Great Sentences.  Penguin. 2013. p. 75.
2. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2005. p. 37.
3. Truss, L. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Gotham Books. 2003. p.88.
4. Strunk, W. Jr. and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. Pearson Education, Inc. 2000. p. 7.
5. Wallraff, B. Word Court. Harcourt, Inc. 2000. p. 290.
6. Garner, B. “Run-On Sentences,” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press. 2009. p. 724.
7. Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. 1996. p. 162.
8. Lopp, M. “A Story Culture.” Rands in Repose. February 8, 2010. http://www.randsinrepose.com/archives/2010/02/08/a_story_culture.html (accessed June 11, 2013).

*Except for the capitalization of “Editor,” but that’s a different topic.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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