The Comma Splice Situation

Something about the comma splice vexes me.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in the 18th century. A whole century before grammar rules were codified. Dickens’ comma splices weren’t wrong simply because no rule existed concerning their use. The earliest known complaint against the comma splice, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, is 1917. Today, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty suggests comma splices are only style choices that are bad style choices; that only famous authors can get away with. Fogarty writes, “Occasionally, someone brilliant intentionally bucks the rules and still succeeds, but it’s much more common for writers to have consistent errors like comma splices in their manuscripts not because they are brilliant renegades, but because they actively don’t know the rules.”

The overall consensus seems to be the comma splice, no matter how you slice it, is bad.tweetbutton

Except in the case of short, tightly related sentences or in informal writing versus formal writing. To be sure, in my college freshman composition courses, I prescribe the exclusive use of the semi-colon or conjunctions. But then, there is Kurt Vonnegut and his sound advice: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And when fixing a comma splice with a semi-colon, what really is the difference between the semi and the comma besides the hat? The period above the comma all of a sudden makes the splice okay. Why are there such strong emotions against comma splice usage?

Beginning writers unconsciously imitate what is already considered to be good writing, and the comma splice is found in all kinds of good writing, not just Dickens. James Thurber, Garrison Keillor, H.G. Wells, John Updike, Suzanne Collins, Cormac McCarthy have all used the construction, and when a writer asks why they can’t use a comma splice they inevitably receive one of two answers: 1) because it’s wrong or 2) you’re not famous.  

Being famous suggests you’ve become a successful well-known author. Your writing works. It pays the bills, and you’re perpetuating a grammar error all over the place that confuses writers who aren’t famous because they aren’t allowed to make the same writerly move. I’m not suggesting unexperienced writers go carte blanche with the comma splice. Style guides are made for a reason. Different writing situations call for different standards. You don’t cuss in an academic paper, for example.

The comma splice is not a matter of right and wrong, just as the sentence fragment can be used to great effect, the comma splice can be used to great effect as well. In a 2006 article from The English Journal, Edgar Schuster examined fifty essays from The Best American Essays 2001 and The Best American Essays 2003. Specifically, Schuster searched for sentence fragments and he found them. Approximately a little under one a page, but he also found run-on sentences and comma splices. He also says that at “the backbone of the essays was “the complete, well-formed English sentence.” There is a difference between committing a grammar faux pas because of a lack of knowledge and creating clarity and nuance of meaning through grammar.

A semicolon is formal. It wears a hat. Probably a tie. The comma splice is breezy. Conversationalist. Out of breath. Elegant at times. Poetic. Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities opens as a poem, in fact, and transitions to prose.

People are obsessed with the grammar splice. It has come to almost bar brawl status. As a writer, be forewarned concerning the comma splice climate. You are taking a risk that you will get called on. Told you are simply wrong. Unless you are famous. Then you are okay. People will look the other way, and that is my main complaint concerning the comma splice. How can you learn without experimentation, without trying and making mistakes? Celebrity status does not make good writing. Good writing fit to the situation makes good writing.


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Edgar Schuster, Breaking the Rules

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One thought on “The Comma Splice Situation

  1. Pingback: Politics, Grammar, and Violence | stevebargdill

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