Ask the Editor Series, Q7
Q: How can I identify a comma splice?
A1: Is there a comma in the sentence? Then it’s possible.
A2: This answer is complicated and completely easy at the same time, which makes it complicated to explain. And easy to explain. But allow me to try . . .
These days, comma splices are so common that they aren’t too hard to spot, even for an amateur. They’re the bane of every English teacher and easy fodder for internet trolls, while at the same time being invisible to those who write them, as this writer addresses:
Dear Lynda, My most frequent grammatical error when writing is the comma splice. For some reason, they just continuously appear in my work. Is there a reason behind it and is there a simple rule or way I can recognize and correct it before it gets to my editor?
First, let me define what, exactly, a comma splice is. The easiest definition for this type of error is the joining of two independent clauses with a comma. To go back to basics, an independent clause is a group of words (subject and verb) that can stand alone as a complete thought. A full sentence, if you will:
The dog was riding a skateboard. ✔
He was the most popular dog on the playground. ✔
Whenever you place two full sentences (independent clauses) together, if there’s a comma present, it’s usually accompanied by a conjunction:
The dog was riding a skateboard, and he was the most popular dog on the playground. ✔
A comma splice occurs when the comma is present but the conjunction is missing:
The dog was riding a skateboard, he was the most popular dog on the playground. ✘
I will be the first to admit that comma splices make me grind my teeth. They frustrate me. And in formal writing or in a nonfiction setting like a textbook, they are wrong. Very, very wrong.
But you may be surprised—full disclosure: as I was, long ago—to find that they’re not always wrong.
How can that be? Either something is wrong or it’s not, and comma splices must certainly fall on one side of the fence or the other.
But let me clarify: comma splices are always wrong grammatically. They’re just not always wrong stylistically.
Here’s the thing about comma splices: if you’re a fiction writer whose story includes a lot of dialogue, you’re bound to use commas when it’s questionable. Why is that okay? Well, it’s because that’s what reflects realistic dialogue.
When we speak, we don’t always use full sentences, and we don’t always speak with precise grammatical correctness. We speak in fragments, run-on sentences, and everything in between. Think of any child who’s excited about something that happened to them, and picture this:
“Mother, there was a dog at the playground today. He was on a skateboard, and he was very popular. Everyone thought he was terrific. He rode back and forth for hours.”
Grammatically, it’s correct. But does it sound like anyone, ever? Not anyone who’s normal, anyway. Right? People (especially children) talk more like this:
“Mom, there was this dog at the playground, he had a skateboard, and he was all over the place, everyone was cheering for him, he kept going all afternoon!”
Grammatically, it’s cringeworthy, but it’s much more realistic in terms of dialogue, and therefore a better stylistic choice.
So how do you recognize if you’re using comma splices? You can take a look at what’s on either side of the comma, first of all, and see if each portion can be a complete sentence on its own. If it can (i.e. if each portion is an independent clause), then you have a comma splice on your hands.
If the splice is in dialogue, I’d say don’t worry about it, and your editor will tell you if it’s awkward or not. If it’s in the narrative, though, try your best to separate the two independent clauses by either adding a conjunction after the comma, using a semicolon in place of the comma (yes, this is how semicolons can be used properly), separating the sentences with a period, or if all else fails, recasting the sentence so you don’t need any of the other solutions mentioned.
Happy writing! And feel free to submit your questions here so I can answer them in a future post.
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