comma splices

“Often, the comma conveys a finesse which the semicolon would destroy.”

~Anne L. Klinck,
“Unravelling the Comma Splice”

Like fragments, comma splices are only a no-no when done poorly. Splicing is about uniting — getting the independent clauses closer together — and you only want to unite compatible couples.

Think about it like lifting the arm rest at a movie theater so you can get closer to your date: you wouldn’t want to do that with someone who’s not a good match. These should be independent clauses that would normally take a semicolon between them except that a semicolon feels like too much separation. The comma splice is the liftable armrest option.

Professional Examples

  • Kids grow, musical styles change, people keep inventing things, Seinfeld goes off, women get pregnant, men go bald.

~John McWhorter, quoted in Schuster’s Breaking the Rules

  • Keep moving; let them spend some time together, let them jam for a while.

~from Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • Such instruction is negative in that it tells students what not to do and how not to do it; better instruction—in any skill, I assume—is going to tell students what to do and how to do it, it is going to encourage the “good” behaviors, not discourage the bad.

~from John Dawkins’s “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool”

  • We are born weak, we need strength; helpless, we need aid; foolish, we need reason.

~ from Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile

  • It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.

~from Ian McEwan’s Atonement

  • A sudden gray rain swept the street, there was a stunning clap of thunder.

~Ronan Bennett, quoted in Schuster’s Breaking the Rules

  • Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it.

~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Student Examples

  • We pay companies for products that make life seemingly more convenient, we buy things that we feel will make us happy. ~Kelsey
  • On the best day there is a small reduction, on a bad day none. ~Race

How Comma Splices Work

A comma splice is when two independent clauses are connected with only a comma rather than a comma+conjunction or a semicolon: “I slipped, I fell” rather than “I slipped, and I fell” or “I slipped; I fell.”

In most instances, this is considered incorrect usage, but here are five “widely accepted” comma splices complete with examples of each type (from Anne L. Klinck’s “Unravelling the Comma Splice,” English Journal 87.3, 96–98):

1. When the independent clauses mirror the same structure.

Ex: They were invented as a convenience to the flesh, they have become a chain for the spirit.
Ex: Many are little more than literary exercises, many are of no particular interest as poetry.

2. When you have a series of independent clauses (often similar to #1).

Ex: She sighed, she cried, she almost died.
Ex: I came, I saw, I conquered.

3. When you have a semicolon or other mark creating a larger separation in the sentence and want the remaining independent clauses to be more connected.

Ex: If speech and cinema are akin to music, writing is like architecture; it endures, it has weight.

4. When you have a “not only . . . but also” type sentence where the “but” is only implied.

Ex: I not only work all day, I work all evening too.

5. When you have a tag question, tag statement or comment clause connected to the other independent clause.

Ex: You can come, can’t you?
Ex: This is true, it does.
Ex: You can change it, you know.

One other potentially acceptable comma splice that Anne Klinck does not list is when two independent clauses of any length are joined with a comma for the purpose of feeling rushed or showing things happening almost simultaneously or very quickly. Since a comma creates less of a pause than a semicolon, the comma rushes the reader into the second independent clause.

Note that this is very rarely used, and its rarity helps make the effect more stunning when the purpose is clear. The last two professional examples above, from Ronan Bennett and Marilynne Robinson, show this type of rushed sentence done well.

Self Check

Be sure you’ve used one of the five accepted types. Like with semicolons, cover up each independent clause to make sure it could stand alone. Then compare the independent clauses and make sure they are short enough and similar enough to each other that they will be effective with a comma splice.

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