Do you have trouble figuring out when to place a comma in your sentence and when not to? Good; that means you pass the Turing test—you’re human. There are a lot of ways to use commas and a lot of ways to misuse commas. Many of those uses and misuses can be difficult to explain clearly, which is why I’ve waited so long to broach the subject. But in my recent reading and editing I have been coming across so many misused commas that I figure it’s about time to jump in and address some of these issues. Starting with:
The Comma Splice
A comma splice is when you have two independent clauses (i.e. two complete sentences) joined by a comma. For the purposes of this column, we’re going to consider it a form of run-on sentence. Here’s an example of a comma splice:
I won’t make it to the meeting tonight, you will need to hand out assignments.
See how this is really two sentences? Each clause has its own subject performing its own action (“I won’t” and “you will,” respectfully) and so could stand perfectly well on its own. If you remember from the post on breaking punctuation, the comma is used to separate closely-related information. As a general rule, if you have two clauses with distinct subjects and verbs, those clauses should not be separated by a comma.
|If there's anything that the media has taught us, it's that splicing is bad.|
Simply removing the comma won’t fix the problem:
I won’t make it to the meeting tonight you will need to hand out assignments.
That’s still a run-on sentence. The problem can be fixed, however, by changing out the comma for other punctuation or by adding some clarifying words:
I won’t make it to the meeting tonight; you will need to hand out assignments.
I won’t make it to the meeting tonight—you will need to hand out assignments.
I won’t make it to the meeting tonight. You will need to hand out assignments.
I won’t make it to the meeting tonight, so you will need to hand out assignments.
Since I won’t make it to the meeting tonight, you will need to hand out assignments.
I won’t make it to the meeting tonight, which means you will need to hand out assignments.
Just remember: if both clauses can stand as sentences, they’ll probably something more than a comma to connect them.
One of the trickiest things about comma splices is that they’re not always a bad thing.
Well-versed, reputable authors will use them all the time. They're all over the place. For instance, you may be familiar with this famous quote from Julius Caeser:
I came, I saw, I conquered.
That right there is three distinct clauses, each with a subject and a verb, separated by a pair of comma splices. Even the picky Strunk and White noted that splices are sometimes acceptable when the clauses are short and similar in form.
The door slammed shut, the lights went out, the air went cold.
Comma splices are especially easy to justify in dialog or in poetic writing, as they can help mimic the cadences of spoken language more clearly than other punctuation might.
So if comma splices aren’t always bad, how do we determine when to use them? Well, if you’re looking to submit to an editor, I recommend playing it safe and just avoiding them. In her excellent book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss says, “so many highly respected writers observe the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you're famous. Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.”
If that seems unfair, well . . . comma splices really can be awful if you’re not absolutely sure what you’re doing. It’s the old “you have to know the rules before you can break them” advice. In my opinion, you’re better off avoiding comma splices until you, your editors, and your audience are all confident that you know what you’re doing.
Somewhere out in our audience there is someone who read that advice and said something along the lines of, “Bah! You don’t get published by playing it safe! You have to experiment, share your soul, be bold and daring!” I have two things to say to that reader.
First: that was actually a pretty decent use of comma splices in that last sentence of yours. Good job.
Second: you are wrong. Oh, your sentiment is good—go out there and experiment and be bold and daring. More power to you. But that sentiment does not apply to grammar. It doesn’t apply to the basics of solid prose. Experiment with your plot, share your soul through your characters, and be bold and daring with your themes and content. But learn to write all of that in a clear, legible, and simple manner. Learning to write correctly will get you closer to being published than all the creativity that you can muster.
In other words—there is no comma splice that is so bold and daring that it will get you published. But if you let comma splices make a mess of your writing, it just may keep you from getting published. Play it safe and don’t let that happen.