Today I’m going to give a rare grammar lesson. Honestly, I don’t think grammar rules matter too much—if you communicate effectively, you probably have it made. Or to state things differently, most people inherently know most grammar rules, even if they would have trouble “spelling them out.” Now with that said, there is one grammar rule that, if you can master, will make your writing look much better. That is figuring out what a comma splice is, and then avoiding. Or in other words, the rule is “Don’t make comma splices.” So what is a comma splice, you might ask? WELL LET ME TELL YOU!
A comma splice is two independent clauses joined with a comma. My guess is (I’m a high school English teacher, after all) that doesn’t mean much to you. So how’s this: all complete sentences could be thought of as independent clauses, and you should never join two complete sentences with a comma. Sentences deserve to have their periods. Or exclamations points! Or should they end in question marks? Yes, they should; or, they can be joined with semi-colons. Only dependent clauses can be joined to independent clauses with a comma. This is because they are dependent, i.e. they need that complete sentence to make them whole. Examples:
- INDEPENDENCE CLAUSE: I like ice-cream. (clear)
- DEPENDENT CLAUSE: Which is tasty. (unclear—what is tasty?)
- ALL BETTER: I like ice-cream, which is tasty. (now it all makes sense)
So to get back to the matter at hand; here is a comma splice: “I like golf, I play golf.” Honestly, besides the fact that it’s a dumb sentence, it doesn’t seem like that bad of writing. EXCEPT, it is two sentences combined with a comma, and all of the options below which “fix” it sound better:
- PERIOD: I like golf. I play golf.
- SEMI-COLON: I like golf; I play golf.
- CONJUNCTION: I like golf, and I play golf.
- OTHER: I like golf, which is why I play golf.
Or in the words of the King of Siam, “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” Now this should, hopefully, illustrate why comma splices are to be avoided—here is nothing confusing about the fixes, and therefore they are stronger. Ultimately comma splices create ambiguity so they are a weaker form of writing, and that’s it. Though of course, these example do beg a question, and the answer to that question is: “Golf is OK.” I like tennis better, but again, it’s OK.
There are a few other ways we could bridge these two independent clause (semicolon + conjunctive adverb, anyone?) but it doesn’t really matter. Comma splices are jarring and almost anything else is better. Thus if you can figure out any other way to join sentence together you’ve got it made. College papers with comma splices get torn up (I have seen this happen numerous times), stories with comma splices are rejected, and if you can find a book/magazine/newspaper (BUT EXCLUDING HEADLINES) with a comma splice in it show me and I’ll eat my own shoe!
And if you got down here and read that previous sentence, I won’t truly, though this short documentary synopsis about one of my very favorite directors might be worth a quick read: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (I also believe the full documentary is on Youtube, but read the synopsis, as there is a cool story behind it). Now all the best, and happy writing!
–Jeff and Leah 😉
(this post is a follow-up to Behold, the Humble Dash)