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A comma splice is the use of a comma to join (splice) two independent clauses, where the clauses are not connected by a conjunction such as "and". For example:

It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark.[1]

Comma splices are generally considered errors in English, although they are acceptable in some languages, including French and German, and compulsory in others, including Russian and Ukrainian.

Contents

The prescriptive view

Comma splices are condemned in The Elements of Style, a popular American English style guide by E.B. White and William Strunk, Jr.[2]

According to Joanne Buckley,[3] comma splices often arise when writers use conjunctive adverbs to separate two independent clauses instead of using a coordinating conjunction. A coordinating conjunction is one of the following seven words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. A conjunctive adverb is a word like furthermore, however, or moreover. A conjunctive adverb and a comma (or a conjunctive adverb between two commas) is not strong enough to separate two independent clauses and creates a comma splice. Only semicolons and periods are strong enough to separate two independent clauses without a conjunction. (Note that although Buckley refers specifically to coordinating conjunctions, it is equally acceptable to use other conjunctions such as although or since.)

Grammarians disagree as to whether a comma splice also constitutes a run-on sentence. Some define run-on sentences to include comma splices,[4] but others limit the term to strictly mean those in which independent clauses are joined without any punctuation, thereby excluding comma splices.[5][6]

Acceptable uses

Strunk & White note that splices are sometimes acceptable when the clauses are short and alike in form, such as:

The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up.

The famous sentence I came, I saw, I conquered falls into the same category.

Fowler (third edition, 1996)[7] notes a number of examples by reputable authors:

We are all accustomed to the ... conjoined sentences that turn up from children or from our less literate friends... Curiously, this habit of writing comma-joined sentences is not uncommon in both older and present-day fiction. Modern examples: I have the bed still, it is in every way suitable for the old house where I live now (E. Jolley); Marcus ... was of course already quite a famous man, Ludens had even heard of him from friends at Cambridge (I. Murdoch).

The comma splice is often considered acceptable in poetic writing. The editors of the Jerusalem Bible translate Isaiah 11:4 as:

His word is a rock that strikes the ruthless, his sentences bring death to the wicked.[8]

Lynne Truss[9] observes: "so many highly respected writers observe the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you're famous." She cites Samuel Beckett, E. M. Forster, and Somerset Maugham. "Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful."

Comma splices are also acceptable in passages of spoken (or interior) dialogue, and are sometimes used deliberately to emulate spoken language more closely.

Correction

Simply removing the comma does not correct the error, but results in a run-on sentence. There are several ways to correct this:

  • Change the comma to another punctuation mark:
    • It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
    • It is nearly half past five – we cannot reach town before dark.
  • Write the two clauses as two separate sentences:
    • It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark.
  • Insert a coordinating conjunction following the comma:
    • It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.
    • It is nearly half past five, so we cannot reach town before dark.
  • Make one clause dependent on the other:
    • As it is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark.
    • Because it is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark.
  • Use a semicolon or dash and a conjunctive adverb:
    • It is nearly half past five; therefore, we cannot reach town before dark.
    • It is nearly half past five – therefore, we cannot reach town before dark.

References

  1. ^ Examples adapted from the online, public-domain 1918 edition of The Elements of Style.
  2. ^ "Do not join independent clauses by a comma". The Elements of Style (1st ed.). 1918. http://www.crockford.com/wrrrld/style2.html#5. Retrieved 2007-09-04.  
  3. ^ Buckley, Joanne. Checkmate: A Writing Reference for Canadians. Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson. 2003.
  4. ^ "Run-on Sentences, Comma Splices". http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/runons.htm. Retrieved 2008-01-24.  
  5. ^ "Run-ons – Comma Splices – Fused Sentences". 2006-08-31. http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/598/02/. Retrieved 2008-01-24.  
  6. ^ Hairston, Maxine; Ruszkiewicz, John J.; Friend, Christy (1998), The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers (5th ed.), New York: Longman, p. 509  
  7. ^ R. W. Burchfield, first edited by H. W. Fowler. (1996). Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198691262.  
  8. ^ Alexander Jones, ed (1966). Jerusalem Bible (Reader's Edition). Doubleday. ISBN 0385499183.  
  9. ^ Lynne Truss. (2003). "That'll do, comma". Eats, Shoots & Leaves. London: Profile Books. ISBN 1861976127.  

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