Monday, November 14, 2016

Splicing and Dicing

A popular post from November 2008

by Annette Lyon

I'm veering into line-edit territory today in hopes of doing my part in eliminating the literary world of a serious pet peeve: The comma splice.

Yes, we're talking punctuation. I'm not nearly as funny as Lynne Truss, but stick with me. After today's post, you'll never commit the egregious error of splicing with commas again! (And I will celebrate!)

English has a number of punctuation marks, and each has its own job and strengths.

For example, a period is strong enough to end an entire sentence. In fact, a period is so strong that you can't use it mid-sentence to indicate a pause between phrases or clauses.

This doesn't work:

Because she had no date. She didn't go to the prom.

Huh? The period makes it confusing. We need a less powerful pause, and a comma is just the thing.

Bring on the comma!

The little comma, while a trusty little trooper, is one of the weakest of punctuation marks. It's also one of the most abused. People assume that any time a pause is warranted, a comma fits just fine.

Not so. The poor comma isn't strong enough to do all we ask of it, and that's how we end up with the dreaded comma splice.

Drill this into your head:

A comma isn't strong enough to hold two sentences together.

It's a lowly comma! It's just a little jot! It doesn't have such power.

Take these two regular (correct) sentences:

He bought his wife flowers.

She sneezed when she smelled them.

All well and good. But what if you want longer sentence so you work doesn't read choppy? They're related, so you can combine them, right?

Well, yes, but not like this:

He bought his wife flowers, she sneezed when she smelled them.

Remember the weak little comma? It's groaning under the weight of two complete sentences. It can't take it!

If both sides of the new, longer sentence can stand by themselves, you have a comma splice.

To fix comma splices, you have a couple of options:

1) Turn the sentence back into two with a period:

He bought his wife flowers. She sneezed when she smelled them.

2) Replace the weak little comma with a semicolon. The semicolon is like a comma and a period put together, right? It's definitely strong enough to hold two sentences together:

He bought his wife flowers; she sneezed when she smelled them.

3) Use an em dash. They're fun. Almost like a freebie punctuation mark because they're hard to use wrong:

He bought his wife flowers—she sneezed when she smelled them.

4) Leave the comma but add a conjunction after it:

He bought his wife flowers, but she sneezed when she smelled them.

He bought his wife flowers, and she sneezed when she smelled them.

Conjunctions hook up "words and phrases and clauses." (Remember the Schoolhouse Rock song? "Conjunction Junction, what your function . . .") When you're connecting two sentences, you're hooking up "clauses."

Here's a trusty list of the SEVEN conjunctions to pick from:
  • AND
  • OR
  • FOR
  • NOR
  • YET
  • BUT
  • SO
Note that then isn't a conjunction, so this is wrong:
He bought his wife flowers, then she sneezed when she smelled them.

Also note that you can't have only a conjunction. You need the comma paired with it. So this is also incorrect:

He bought his wife flowers and she sneezed when she smelled them.

That's a run-on sentence, like a cross-street without a stop sign.

One last time, a correct version:

He bought his wife flowers, and she sneezed when she smelled them.

In summary:
  • A comma is too weak to connect full sentences by itself. (Ask: can each side of the sentence stand alone as a sentence?)
  • To fix a comma splice:
1) Replace the comma with a period
2) Or a semicolon
3) Or an em dash

4) Or keep the comma and add a conjunction (and, yet, for, nor, yet, but so)

Eliminate a few comma splices from your work, and I'll thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Tristi Pinkston said...

Awesome examples, Annette!

My thing is, for the most part I know what's right and wrong, but I'll be danged if I can ever remember what they're called. :)

Melanie J said...

This is a fun and clear explanation. So much so, in fact, that I'm sending a link to this post to my English teacher friends so that perhaps they can tame some of the egregious comma splicing in their little corner of the eighth grade universe.

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

I'm glad you wrote about this. I was never and English major and I don't remember all the rules. It seems simple but there are those of us out there that simply can't remember everything!! lol

Hopefully I won't make the same mistakes anymore!

Amanda said...

Okay, I know I'm probably just missing something here, but why is "yet" in the list of 7 twice? It's probably obvious, but my brain is too tired to function correctly. Can you explain? :D

Annette Lyon said...

Amanda, Good catch. My error--the first YET should be OR. I'll fix it in the post. Thanks! (And oops--sorry!)

Don said...

Your rule about semicolons really hit home, and I'll be darned if I didn't add a half-dozen of those things to the four pages I wrote today. Good fun!

Oh, and my Word Verification for this post is subpgan, which I think is someone who is almost a pagan, but not quite.

(Sorry - Melanie got me going on these...)