The Writer’s Toolbox – The Splice is Right

The comma splice?the mysterious writing error That’s easy to make but hard to recognize in your writing. Harder still? Deciding when It’s okay to break this rule. This week we’ll explain the error, discuss how to fix it, and cover some instances where comma splices can be quite effective. Just don’t tell your eighth-grade English teacher!

Comma Splices
A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses?clauses that can stand alone as complete sentences?are separated by a comma.

Example A: Sarah went to the store, I raked the leaves.

In the example above, there are two independent clauses, or clauses that could stand independently as sentences:

Sarah went to the store.
I raked the leaves.

Example A shows a comma splice. What’s the problem here? The comma is considered a weaker link, and the two independent clauses need a stronger separation like a period, a semicolon, a conjunction like and or but, or a different word that expresses a relationship between the two sentences (like while).

Example A (revised): Sarah went to the store. I raked the leaves.
Example A (revised): Sarah went to the store; I raked the leaves.
Example A (revised): Sarah went to the store, and I raked the leaves.
Example A (revised): Sarah went to the store while I raked the leaves.

As you see, there are many options for fixing comma splices. However, you may not always want to do so.

But Sometimes…

Look at the following example:

Example B: Trust me, I am on your side.

Technically, it meets the definition of a comma splice. There are two independent clauses:

Trust me.
I am on your side.

And it wouldn’t be wrong to replace the comma with a semicolon, for example, or a linking word:

Example B (revised): Trust me; I am on your side.
Example B (revised): Trust me, for I am on your side.

However, if you compare the revised versions with the original version, you’ll notice that the sound is different. You can use a more informal punctuation mark, like an em dash, to preserve that original sound, but in some cases, leaving a deliberate comma splice may be okay.

In fact, Garner’s Modern Usage specifically states that comma splices may be acceptable when “(1) the clauses are short and closely related, (2) there is no danger of a miscue, and (3) the context is informal” (Garner, 2009, p.724).

In Example B above, the clauses are short and closely related, and It’s easy to figure out the meaning; if the context is less formal (think fictional dialogue or informal writing), most grammarians will be okay with its presence.

Not all, though, and not every instance. Know your audience, know your reader, and know their preferences, and make sure your rule-breaking flows with the writing rather than standing out.

When in doubt, fix the splice.

Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.