The (Usually-but-Not-Always-Unacceptable) Comma Splice
With the (Unasked for) Help of Jonathan Lethem
One of the most common grammar errors—or let me put that in quotes: “errors”—I see when editing is the so-called comma splice. Garner describes the comma splice as occurring when “two independent clauses have merely a comma between them,” with no coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), thereby creating a run-on sentence (Modern American Usage, 724). For example:
I am writing a post about comma splices, I hope you enjoy it.
To correct—or let me put that in quotes: “correct”—the splice, I could use a semicolon, a long dash (em-dash), or (in some cases) a colon. For example:
I am writing a post about comma splices; I hope you enjoy it.
Or I could add a coordinating conjunction:
I am writing a post about comma splices, and I hope you enjoy it.
Or just a good ol’ period:
I am writing a post about comma splices. I hope you enjoy it.
Garner refers to comma splices as “usually-but-not-always unacceptable” (ibid.). I usually recommended avoiding comma splices for two reasons: (1) inevitably, some readers and editors will assume the splice is an error, especially if the writer betrays even a hint of less-than-great grammar proficiency elsewhere in his or her writing, and (2) it’s often a needless risk: corrections tend to be easy and painless.
But when is the comma splice acceptable? And might it sometimes even be preferable to standard constructions? Strunk and White say the comma (sans conjunction) is fine when “the clauses are very short and alike in form, or when the tone of the sentence is easy and conversational” (The Elements of Style, 6–7). With that in mind, let’s check out some of these acceptable splices. It turns out that the (otherwise?) excellent Jonathan Lethem is a (perhaps unwitting?) master of comma splices. The book is The Fortress of Solitude (Doubleday, 2003) (all page numbers below refer to this edition).
When the two clauses are short, it’s hard to get up in arms:
“Arthur smirked, Dylan said nothing.” (198)
“Songs die, this one did.” (201)
Clearly, Lethem could have used semicolons or other “more correct” punctuation marks, but the commas here signify a close tie between the two clauses, without losing the necessary pause—or breath—between them. If I were editing Lethem’s work (ah, the very thought of it!), I’d likely leave these unchanged.
One of the most common comma splices, not really covered by Garner or S&W, is what I’ll call the negative-positive splice—that is, the first clause includes a “not”:
It’s not his writing, it’s his ideas.
It’s not only beautifully written, it’s also perfectly plotted.
I don’t have a problem with either of these. (Note: I’ve seen the order reversed (i.e. positive-negative), but this is less common.) Here are a couple of Lethem’s:
“And Aeroman didn’t walk, he flew.” (192)
“He didn’t even get angry, it was just a story now.” (248)
The clauses above are also clearly “very short and alike in form” (if not in meaning), but the negative-positive structure seems to further validate, if not valorize, the splice. This, I think, is the most acceptable use of a comma splice. I never recommend removing this splice, as long as the writer is consistent. (In any case, other punctuation marks, especially semicolons or long dashes, work fine.)
When the meanings of the two clauses are quite similar—when the clauses echo, perhaps even in a (rhetorically) redundant or repetitive sense—a comma splice is probably fine:
“Dean Street of course infiltrated the work, it couldn’t not.” (234)
This sentence almost “feels” like one sentence. I think the splice captures the semantic likeness of the two clauses. For a writer exhibiting sound grammatical chops elsewhere in a piece, I’d let this one go.
Echoing clauses might also include two common constructions, often found in somewhat scholarly discourse: the “that is (to say)” (or “i.e.”) clause and the “which is to say” clause. These clauses are ostensibly used for clarification (but are often not really):
Some philosophers posit a pre-linguistic, pre-cultural, instinctual semiotics, that is to say, language may be determined by, rather than be the source of, signification.
See? Scholarly. I couldn’t find examples of these in Lethem’s book: it’s not that kind of book, which is to say (ahem), it’s not a pedantic, highbrow piece of nonfiction, (nor is it a piece of fiction spoofing as a pedantic, highbrow piece of nonfiction).
It’s worth mentioning that many—if not most—writers would still opt for a semicolon or long dash with this construction:
Some philosophers posit a pre-linguistic, pre-cultural, instinctual semiotics—that is to say, language may be determined by, rather than be the source of, signification.
I’m a fan of the use of asyndeton, “a stylistic scheme in which conjunctions such as ‘or’ and ‘and’ are deliberately omitted from a series of words, phrases, or clauses” (Wiktionary). Emphasis on “clauses.” For example:
I write today, I write tomorrow, I write till the end of time.
Three clauses, one comma splice (the second comma (the first comma is grammatical)). This is one splice that really doesn’t have a euphonious substitution. Placing an “and” before the third clause (after the second comma) detracts from the fluidity of the sentence. And changing the commas to semicolons or periods, while correct, feels visually wrong—too boundaried, too fussy.
I think these clauses can be longer, thereby violating S&W’s “very short” mandate, but they should be structurally similar, as in my example above. There should almost be a sense of a list of clauses (even if there are only two of them):
“The voices may propel you to warble along, or to dance, they may inspire you to deduction or insurrection or introspection or merely to watching a little less television.” (306)
This feels right to me. “The voices may . . . , they may . . . .” A third clause (beginning with “they may . . .”) might have been nice, just to clarify the asyndeton and emphasize the repetition, but I think the splice is fine above.
S&W mention that comma splices are allowed when the tone is “easy and conversational.” Clearly dialogue, especially slangy dialogue, need not adhere strictly to the rules of grammar:
“ ‘Ain’t time to be foolin’ around here, man, we got to go.’ ” (189)
The speech is obviously ungrammatical, and the comma splice here seems to confirm—kind of at a paratextual (or at least unheard) level—this fact. When I’m editing, I usually let these dialogic splices go, unless (once again) I worry about the writer’s overall grammatical proficiency. (Yes, the splice above creates some ambiguity: I hear the “man” with the fist clause; a long dash would have clarified this: “ ‘Ain’t time to be foolin’ around here, man—we got to go.’ ”)
Ungrammatical Comma Splices
But many, if not most, comma splices should be avoided. Here are some of Lethem’s I’d put a red pen to (pace, Mr. Lethem, pace!):
“He should be dancing around the room, instead he felt weighted to the chair, a thousand pounds of ballast.” (250)
I see no reason why a semicolon wouldn’t better connect these two clauses. They are just too long for a comma splice, and there’s not a strong enough echo for me.
“That was the end of it, it was as if they’d never been discovered.” (211)
I’m feeling a long dash here, especially for a writer comfortable with these dashes, as Lethem certainly is. In fact, he uses long dashes frequently between short or echoing clauses. (This also raises another concern: consistency. In my opinion, a writer should have a good reason for using each of the various inter-clausal punctuation marks: why a long dash here, a comma splice there, a semicolon somewhere else? Each mark is different, and each should be, thus, differentiated, depending on context.)
One more example:
“But no amount of volume drew Junior to the door, in Mingus’s apartment they were mole-men now for sure, on their own deep exploration.” (224)
These clauses are just too long. It also presents a potential miscue: we don’t necessarily expect a second clause following the comma. I’d recommend a semicolon or long dash (depending on which mark the writer is more comfortable with or uses more frequently).
Lethem’s novel is filled with comma splices; the above is just a sampling. I’m a fan of Lethem’s writing, and he’s probably earned the right to scatter comma splices throughout his work—you know, he’s won some awards and stuff. But in general, as I said above, comma splices, especially for us mortals, are often worth avoiding. Unless the writing is spectacularly strong, many readers and editors will assume the splices are unintentional (and, thus, erroneous). And, again, the corrections are usually easy and painless.
So: I’ll say it once, I’ll say it twice: when in doubt, try not to splice.
To subscribe to this blog, click here.
Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.