Part of my Master of Fine Arts in fiction offered the opportunity to work as a teaching apprentice and later, an adjunct, in college composition courses. For three semesters, I commuted three hours each way to sit in on, and teach, courses for college students learning how to become stronger readers and writers.
The most common grammatical error I came across was the comma splice. This sneaky devil has appeared outside of academia, too. I’ve seen it on websites, in business publications, and even in a novel.
The instance that stood out the most to me was actually a sentence that was both a run-on and spliced. It had two comma splices. I don’t recall the exact wording, but it went something like this:
It was a difficult time in my life, I learned a lot about change and how to cope with it, I know I can tackle everything college has to throw at me.
A comma splice is when two (or more) independent sentences are separated only by a comma, as in the example above. Basically, it’s an example of glueing the sentence parts together in a way that can confuse the reader.
Comma splices present a unique problem for readers: They make it unclear which clauses or phrases contain the most important information.
You’re probably thinking that unless someone is a grammar guru, they’re not going to care. The truth is that while, yes, some readers might not notice and/or care, there are readers who will notice, and not in a positive way.
Comma splices do matter. The way we connect clauses and phrases is important and is something we should care about. If you’ve ever used the idiom, “Save the best for last,” you know that the end of something is more memorable. That’s why in this article, I’m going to cycle back to this idea later on—so that it’s more likely to stick.
When I was in college, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was released in theaters. I was hooked. I saw every film more than once, and even learned some Elvish. But the end of the third movie dragged on, and all the cuts to black kept making me think the film was over.
Peace is restored—cut to black. Then after Samwise returns to the Shire, there’s another cut to black. Guess what happens after Frodo decides to commit sailing-suicide with Bilbo? A cut to black.
I thought I’d find reprieve in the book, but as it happens, the movie actually honored the book in that I thought it would never end. I actually ended up skipping the last 50 pages or so because I just couldn’t go through that again.
It was like The Neverending Story, except that story actually had an ending (as I recall from my childhood in the 1980s).
So now we agree. Endings matter. This is true on the macro level and the micro level. Right now, we’re going to look at the latter. Specifically, we’re going to hang out at the sentence level.
In technical (grammar-guru) terms, a comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined by a comma—and nothing else. If you’re starting to have cold sweats about flashing back to grade school grammar lessons, don’t. I’m going to make it really simple:
An independent clause has a verb, and a subject that completes the verb.
Whew, that’s dry. Not dry in a good way like a glass of champagne, but dry in a boring, can’t-wait-to-smack-my-head-against-the-wall, kind of way. Let’s see if we can liven this up a bit with an example about dogs (because I’m a diehard dog-person … sorry, cat folks, no offense intended—they make me sneeze).
These independent (let’s call them indie, since that’s hipper) clauses can stand alone and be their own sentence, but check out what a paragraph of only simple sentences—that’s what it’s called when you let an indie clause out alone—looks like:
I bought a dog. The dog ate kibble. The dog ate too much kibble. I took the dog to the vet. The vet suggested I hand-feed the dog. I took the dog home. I hand-fed the dog. The dog didn’t get sick on its dinner.
Oh goodness, but that’s awful to read! Listen, indie clauses can hang out alone sometimes, but variety is the spice of life, right? Well, it’s also the spice of whatever you’re writing. Let’s revise that paragraph and put some indie clauses together with just commas:
I bought a dog, the dog ate too much kibble. I took the dog to the vet, the vet suggested I hand-feed the dog. I took the dog home. After hand-feeding the dog, it didn’t get sick on its dinner.
Two of those sentences are comma splices, and two aren’t. Can you guess?
Hey, if not, no worries—I’m going to tell you anyway. The two that are spliced are:
The problem with these sentences is that the reader won’t know which clause in each one is most important. The reader wants to save the best for last, but the comma by itself, between two indie clauses, acts like an equals sign. When it comes to the reader intrinsically assigning value, you might as well use the first version of this dog story.
Or cut to black a half dozen times in one ending.
Before we talk about how to fix pesky comma splices, it’s important we get onto the same page on audience and authorial purpose.
The audience is who is going to consume the written material. In the example with the dog, will it be read by veterinary students? Future dog owners? Friends of the narrator who want to know why their buddy’s dog threw up in their shoes?
We also need to take into account what the author’s purpose is. In my case, my purpose was to show you how boring it is to read a paragraph composed entirely of indie clauses, or simple sentences (a single indie clause out on its own).
If my dog got sick on your footwear, my purpose might be to apologize or get you to empathize with my sick dog. If veterinary students are going to consume this information, the authorial purpose might be to point out that puppies can eat way too much too fast and make themselves sick.
Let’s go with the example of new dog owners who might not know dogs can overeat. The most important part of the first comma-spliced sentence is that the dog overate.
We might assume our readers—who are planning to buy a dog—already know what a dog eats, so we can keep that in mind as we clean up the original. In the examples below, I’m going to separate the indie clauses by using straight brackets for the first and curvy brackets for the second:
Now we need to connect the two ideas in line C. For potential new dog buyers, the phrase “he ate too much” is more important. We can tell them that with the way we join the clauses in this sentence, as I’ll show you in the next section.
Fixing the confusion wrought by a comma splice is easy, but not find-all-and-replace easy, because each comma splice repair comes with a choice.
The question you need to ask yourself is: How important is the clause following the comma? Each way to fix a comma splice creates a pause of a different duration. The longer the pause, the more important the following clause is.
The ways to fix comma splices, in order of shortest pause to longest pause, are:
You can also fix a comma splice by splitting the sentence into stand-alone indie clauses (or simple sentences). This creates the longest pause, but then you’re not combining the clauses.
Let’s look at examples of each of these fixes for a comma splice:
With each example, the pause between these two independent clauses gets longer, thus placing more weight, more impact, on the clause “he ate too much.”
The first sounds pretty casual, like you’re just sitting down with a friend. The second is a bit more impactful. The third, with the em dash (the elongated hyphen), might be good for that article you’re writing to warn new dog owners about letting their dog overeat.
The fourth, with the colon, has the longest pause. We’ve also capitalized the start of the second clause, which gives it the impact of a separate sentence while still connecting it thematically to the first clause.
You’re the writer. The amount of impact (the length of the pause) is all up to you. Keeping your audience and purpose in mind as you fix comma splices will help you make the most rhetorically impactful decision, but any of the repairs above will do, grammatically speaking.
Try not to let the decision-making get to you, either. If you’re fluent in English, your brain probably already knows how long of a pause to use. Try reading aloud. Remember too that you’re not alone in this. When I say I’ve seen my fair share of comma splices, I’ve probably actually seen my fair share, plus however many would equal all the food an entire family of hobbits would consume in a year.
Okay, I have no idea how much food that would be or how many comma splices that equals, but the fact is these things are floating around everywhere. I still find them in my own rough drafts and I’ve been writing professionally for 10 years—not to mention I teach writing. We all face these comma splices and the rhetorical choices they offer.
Think of it like that—they offer a choice. There’s freedom there, so embrace it.
You’ve chosen to follow one clause with another for a reason: to give more information. Your reader is going to automatically want to place more emphasis on the latter information, but with a comma splice, it’s like the author is forcing them to step back from that inclination and treat both as equally important.
End the confusion. Let your endings matter, and use these tools to take the reins to tell your reader how much they matter.
Margaret is an author, English professor, and writing coach. She holds an MFA in fiction and an MA in English and creative writing. Margaret has been writing professionally since 2008, including many years in the digital marketing sphere. Visit mcnelliswrites.com to learn more about Margaret’s work. You can also find Margaret on Twitter @mcnelliswrites.