It Has a Name: The Comma Splice

Comma Police“Among the signs that more particularly betray the uneducated writer is inability to see when a comma is not a sufficient stop. Unfortunately little more can be done than to warn beginners that any serious slip here is much worse than they will probably suppose, and recommend them to observe the practice of good writers.”

 - H.W. Fowler, The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

It’s been over three decades since I was an elementary school student, so I admit that things could have changed in the years since I learned the basics of proper English punctuation. I also sort-of agree with my husband’s philosophy that, as long as a person is able to clearly get across the message he or she intends to communicate, over-focusing on details such as correct spelling and recognizable sentence structure might make one a fussy, pedantic priss.

That said, I find myself scratching my head at what appears to be complete anarchy when it comes to comma usage by many of today’s writers. As I read, I wonder, what in the heck are they teaching kids in school?

Or, do writers get paid extra for every mis-used or missing comma?

Or, why does a multi-million dollar publishing company hire copyeditors who clearly think a comma is the same thing as a period?

I do admit that correct comma usage can be challenging to master, what with all of the dependent clauses versus independent clauses and rules of enumeration and introductory phrases and correct dialogue structure…it’s a lot to keep straight. Indeed, I am willing to overlook a comma missing around a parenthetical phrase and to accept the optionality of the Oxford comma. When you go to the store, please pick up milk, eggs, bread (comma optional) and peanut butter. Throw in the ever-perplexing semicolon and things can get pretty dicey.

But there comes a point where ignoring comma rules becomes openly negligent. Thus we get doozies like the following (character names changed to protect the writer):

“You’re amazing and maybe you’re struggling right now, but seriously Tony, you’ve had to be okay for your entire life, haul around everyone else’s crap, it’s okay to put it down for a minute and let the rest of us carry the burden.”*

And…

Robert never made me feel like I was settling for less than I deserved, he made me feel like having a new dream, where he was the center of it, just made sense.

No. Just no.

After struggling through yet another book full of poorly placed commas that created some pretty spectacular and confusing sentences, I got curious and started Googling around to see if maybe I’ve been misinformed my entire life. I don’t know. Maybe I missed the memo the Authority On All Things Grammar sent out with new comma usage rules.** Truly, since most of the problems I encounter seem to happen in New Adult and Young Adult fiction, I wondered if something had changed in how punctuation is taught or what is considered correct. Am I just really old fashioned, following obsolete guidelines like those people who continue to put two spaces after a period even though the typewriter has gone the way of the dinosaur? Like, maybe I’m just not down with the groovy, new bitchin’ way to write, dawg.

I was happy to learn that my understanding of the purpose of the comma is and remains spot on, at least as far as academia is concerned. In other words, it’s not me, it’s them.

I was also delighted to discover that the comma usage problem I find most egregarious has a name: The Comma Splice. This happens when a writer mistakenly believes that a comma = a period and can thus be used to join two independent clauses without the aid of a conjunction.

She shouted for him to come quickly, he bolted up the stairs and through the door.

It was a gorgeous day in Seattle, I didn’t even need to bring my umbrella when I left for work.

A simple search of “comma splice” will bring up examples galore. When I encounter this in a story, I usually come to a full and complete stop, reread the sentence, then shake my head sadly.

I see this a lot, as I noted earlier, in New Adult and Young Adult titles. I’m not sure why this is. I’d love to hear any theories. I’m certainly hoping it’s not another example of how our educational system is falling down on the job. Perhaps it is as University of Delaware English professor Ben Yagoda speculates in a piece he wrote for The New York Times:

“…I read a lot of writing by college students, and in it a strong recent trend is reversion to comma-by-sound. I attribute this not so much to students’ love of the Constitution and the classics but to the fact that they don’t read much edited prose (as opposed to Facebook status updates, tweets and the like). Two things that you really need to read a lot to understand are punctuation and spelling. (Not coincidentally, spelling is the other contemporary writing disaster.)

As far as comma use goes, my students play it by ear.”

Even following Professor Yagoda’s line of thinking, comma splices still don’t make sense unless young writers of today are hearing the world speak in endless run-on sentences with only a fraction of a pause between thoughts. I’m afraid, rather, the abundance of printed comma splices is the result of writers who simply don’t know that what they are writing is wrong. Whether or not the teachers of their lives corrected them, the lesson never sank in.

Indeed, I think a hefty portion of shame should be heaped on the shoulders of the copyeditors who let these things slide. No one can fault one or two misses within the scope of tens-of-thousands of words. Sadly, I often encounter comma splices multiple times within chapters and even on the same page.

Before anyone can use the comments section to point out that rules are meant to be broken and that using comma splices can be a stylistic choice, I’ve already read a handful of essays defending this rogue technique. I do concede that great writers can make it work, and that comma splices can be used to inject a specific cadence to a piece.

However, my opinion about this literary device is perfectly summed up by Lynne Truss, author of the fantastic book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, in her chapter “That’ll Do, Comma:

“Now, so many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous…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.” – pg. 88.

If I’m not so enthralled with a plot or thoroughly engaged with the characters that I notice comma splices, then perhaps they should be avoided.

If you have the time and inclination, take some of the comma usage quizzes listed below and see how you fair. And if you are a writer or a copyeditor, for the love of all things good in this world, please educate yourself against the Comma Splice and make the reading universe safe again.

On-line Writing Lab Quiz

NIU’s Comma Splice Quiz (challenging! – requires correct use of the semicolon)

For more generic comma usage quizzes:

Grammer.com’s Blue Book Comma Quiz

Rules for Comma Usage (quizzes at the bottom)

*Some feel that comma splices within dialogue are okay because they express the more fluid rhythm of speech. Fair enough, but the danger can be a character who seems to be rambling or talking really fast. Not that this is the only way, but here’s how I would have corrected the problematic dialogue with minimal changes and the same sentiment:

“You’re amazing, and maybe you’re struggling right now. But seriously, Tony, you’ve had to be okay for your entire life and haul around everyone else’s crap. It’s okay to put it down for a minute and let the rest of us carry the burden.”

 **Actually, according to Professer Yagoda, the memo would originate as follows:

Who decides when and how punctuation rules change? The short answer is, no one. The longer answer is that presumably and eventually, the editors of “The Associated Press Stylebook” and “The Chicago Manual of Style,” and the worthies who decide such matters for The New York Times, the Modern Language Association and a few other enterprises reach a consensus on these matters, and their decisions filter down to the rest of us.

Jenna Harper

 

 

 

 

61 thoughts on “It Has a Name: The Comma Splice

  1. Thank you SO MUCH for this post. Like you, I sometimes wonder if I’ve missed some new development (or more accurately, regression!) in grammar when I see the poor punctuation employed in many books these days. And for someone like me who was at school many, MANY years ago, it’s even worse, as I also wonder if it’s just me being a fuddy-duddy and not being hip to these new-fangled trends.

  2. Interesting article.
    Of course as a native German speaker, I’m used to long sentences, running over several pages, only ever divided up by commas, if indeed on puts a comma there at all.
    In a lot of the instances you showed above, a period would never be allowed in German and commas are actually not necessary either.
    So the optional Oxford comma = actually never used in German
    A period before “but, and, or, … ” just not done in German

    So as you may have guessed already, the missing punctuation in novels does not bother me one bit. Wrong spelling on the other hand … don’t get me started.
    I shall now proceed to take the tests to discover the real depth of my ignorance ;-)

    • And I thought English was the craziest language with all of it’s weird rules and then all of the myriad exceptions to every rule. :) It’s interesting that so much of English is based on the Germanic languages that we have such a different punctuation structure.

      As far as putting a period before a conjunction – and, but, or – I do think that there are many who find this to be a gross violation of correct grammar. I know that I have a habit of beginning sentences with conjunctions (thus a period before). See…I did it at the first sentence of this reply! I think, for me, this is my way of avoiding overlong sentences. But I’m sure (there, I did it again!) there are many for whom this is like nails on a chalkbaord.

      • Just my two cents: In all the guides I’ve ever read, starting a sentence with a conjunction is perfectly acceptable, and not considered incorrect grammar at all. This came to my attention because it appears to be an unconscious style of mine that I researched at one time.

        The other thing that makes English difficult isn’t just its Germanic basis but also of the significant influence of French on it after William the Conqueror and during the Middle Ages when French was the world’s language.

      • This stayed with me so I double checked every source I could think of and came up with NO rule against starting a sentence with a conjunction.

        From Oxford: “You might have been taught that it’s not good English to start a sentence with a conjunction such as and or but. It’s not grammatically incorrect to do so, however, and many respected writers use conjunctions at the start of a sentence to create a dramatic or forceful effect.”

        From CMS: “Popular belief to the contrary, this conjunction usefully begins sentences, typically….”

        Even Fowler: “There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards.”

        There are three things some writers do to try to be “correct” resulting in mangled sentences that can end up being awkward and unclear…

        1. Try not to end a sentence with a preposition
        2. Try not to split an infinitive
        3. Try not to start a sentence with a conjunction

        OTOH, NOONE seems to be able to handle a gerund anymore.

        • I finally found the Chicago Style Manual citation:

          15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, section 5.191
          “There is a widespread belief–one with no historical or grammatical foundation–that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as ten percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.”

          Sorry. This was one of those things ooching me, d’ya know what I mean?

  3. I detest comma splices when I’m reading!! Like you, I’ve encountered them so much in the past several years that I began to wonder if some rule had changed or if I was just crazy. Comma splices completely jolt me out of my reading. They’re a constant irritant and make me shake my head every time. How can writers/copyeditors have a career involved with WRITING and not understand or be able to identify one of the most basic concepts of grammar??

    • I’m so glad that I’m not alone on feeling this way! Really, I can tell by about the 5th or 6th page of a book if it’s going to be a wall-banger or not based on how many comma splices I find. I can forgive one or two slipping past the editing phase, or even slack usage in dialogue. But when the comma splices are clearly the result of ignorance I just don’t even want to continue reading. I’ve paid money for a book and for that money I expect a writer who approaches her job – writing – as a profession. As such, I expect her to try to be as close to perfect as possible as far as correct grammar, punctuation and spelling. After all, I would never use a doctor who consistently mistook my ears for my eyes or a car mechanic who doesn’t really know about how my car runs.

  4. The only new development you have missed is the fact that they don’t actually teach grammar or spelling in most schools anymore. Based on what I read from some of the teachers I deal with, many of them have no knowledge of basic grammar and I won’t even get into the spelling or word usage. This is a huge pet peeve of mine since I understand the importance of language and what affect improper usage can have. A misplaced comma can give a whole new meaning to a contract and result in years of expensive litigation.

    Sometimes, I am able to overlook the occasional improperly used comma because my brain will automatically substitute a period. I can also overlook the occasional misspelled word. We are all human. However, if a book contains numerous such errors or improper word usage, I will stop reading because I just have to work too hard to make sense of what the author is trying to convey (I really don’t care whether they are famous and it’s ART or not).

    • Lynnd: You are so write about grammar not being taught in schools. It’s such a shame. I still remember learning how to diagram sentences.

      • LeeB:

        Did you really mean to use “write” (meaning, to put down your thoughts) instead of “right” (meaning, correct)?

    • Wow – the concept that grammar is actually NOT being taught simply floors me! I’ve always believed that since we here in the good ‘ol U.S. don’t feel it necessary to expect our children to be fluent in more than one language (the way most other nations in the world do), the very least we can do is to make sure that they’ve mastered English flawlessly. The idea that grammar, punctuation and spelling are being ignored – WTF?! I mean, what ARE they spending their “English” time learning?

      As far as a misplaced comma causing all kinds of interpretation problems, Professor Yagoda references the comma usage in the US Constitution’s 2nd Amendment as a great example of how it affects laws. How you interpret that amendment – with the commas as they are placed – means the difference between agreeing or disagreeing that the Founding Fathers intended for all citizens to have the right to bear arms or only in the case of a necessary militia. A comma issue that still affects us over 200 years later!

  5. Amen! Poor grammar is inexcusable in books, and does a lot to pull me out of a story. It can destroy my enjoyment of a book.

  6. It has another name, too: the run-on sentence. Some people use this term to mean any long sentence (one that, to their mind “runs on and on,” regardless of grammatical correctness), and that drives me nuts, as well. But that’s a subject for another discussion.

    • I had always thought that what I was encountering was called a run-on sentence. Until I started Googling for this article, I had never even heard of a comma splice. According to what I learned, a comma splice is a type of a run-on sentence. I felt pretty ignorant having my panties all in a twist over a problem I didn’t even know had a specific name. :)

    • I still use the term “run-on sentence” when giving feedback to students, but I also explain what the term means. I think it’s important to know the actual definition of the term. The run-on is among the most common of grammatical errors I encounter when grading papers.

  7. One of the problems is that it’s now customary in the news to cram as much information as possible into the headlines, which leads to editors using commas instead of semicolons or conjunctions: “Harper backs down, concedes Liberal victory” (yeah right, in my dreams), or “Dog bites ten-year-old, girl in serious condition”. When students see that in print, from reputable sources, they believe it’s permissible.

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  9. I would have to agree with NYT’s Yagoda that texting and social media have a big place in explaining this common communication problem. It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big one. Even when teachers teach grammar, we’re up against the many more hours students spend viewing incorrect use of English on their cellphones and the Internet. My 4th grade niece is certainly taught grammar in her class, and it’s reinforced by me and her mom when we go over her homework with her. The college students that I grade probably understand punctuation the least of all grammatical elements, including a complete loss on how to use semi-colons too.

  10. Terry Pratchett had a lovely phrase: ‘wanton cruelty to the comma’.

    I’ve no idea about punctuation – there was a educational theory when I was young that decreed that children, so long as they read enough, would pick up punctuation (& grammar) as they went along. You don’t. I could do the quizzes you linked to – I can see in each case which usage is correct – but if you handed me those sentences unpunctuated, and asked me to supply the necessary commas, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

    (That was UK schooling. And it was a brief fad. My sister, who was in the year above me, worked as a copy editor.)

    My favourite comma story is that the UK and Ireland once negotiated over a comma – whether Britain should declare it had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ or ‘no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’. (They left it out.) But it illustrates why punctuation counts.

    • Yes, I think people do need a basic understanding of the rules of grammar and would struggle to pick them up simply by observation alone. On the other hand, plenty of educational studies do show that vocabulary and spelling can be improved tremendously through reading. Along these lines, learning vocabulary words out of a written context is much more difficult. For punctuation I think having the rules first and then seeing them consistently reenforced via good writing does help. For the readers that are lacking a foundation in the basic principles of grammar and then spending inordinate amounts of time texting, their struggles with grammar are amplified.

  11. I taught high school English for a few years, and too many of my students could not tell me what a preposition was (or give me an example). I’d had visions of delving into all sorts of literature, but we spent too much of the year on the grammar and punctuation they should have gotten years earlier. I was considered an “old-school” teacher (even though I was in my early 30s!). Parents either loved me or hated me for it.

    As for punctuation … oh, goodness. When I taught writing in college, I had students whose teachers had told them to use a comma when it “felt right.” Of course, the frustrating thing about teaching students to un-learn comma splices is often having to go back to square one to teach the elements of a sentence, conjunctions, etc.

    After putting so much effort into my teaching, it’s very disheartening to see how accepted comma splices have become.

    (And it’s impossible for me to write a post or a comment on grammar/punctuation without having an embarrassing typo in there that makes it look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. So if you see a typo … that’s all it is. A typo. :-) )

    • My seventh grade English teacher made us learn a preposition song, roughly sung to the tune of Do-Re-Mi, with every preposition. Clearly, your high school students did not go to Mr. Ferraro’s class, or they would have remembered them all. I still do (over thirty years later).

      Blythe

  12. Nothing sets my teeth on edge like a comma splice. I remember throwing Jean Auel’s book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, across the room because of her numerous comma splices. And I never tried to read her again.

  13. I really hate grammar police! I look for well-written interesting stories but I do not need an author to have perfect grammar. I want a good story. I can’t stand it when people obsess about some rule that they think has to be followed. JMHO.

    • The problem is that the term “well-written” is clearly subjective. I don’t find a story riddled with distracting errors to be “well-written”. I find it to be “poorly-written”. It is fortunate for you that your lower standards allow you to enjoy what is currently being put forth as acceptable. And when stories are dumbed-down to the level of pure text-speak, you will be good to go. As for me, I don’t find anything wrong with educated people expecting other educated people being paid to do a job – professional writers – to follow basic grammar rules. Long live the grammar police.

      • Okay, calm down. LOL! I get upset about other things then a comma being used incorrectly but to each her own. I have high standards in regards to what I care about and you seem to have a lot of assumptions about me in your post. No need to be rude. You can hate bad grammar and I can hate that people point out others mistakes. It’s cool.

      • There’s no doubt that poor grammar reflects poorly on the writer. I’m an English teacher and I try to get across to students that how they present themselves in their writing can greatly impact them in all sorts of ways, including cover letters and resumes for job applications as well as company communiques and reports they may well need to write. Like it or not we judge others by the way they express themselves. We should value writing skills, and I suppose as an educator it often feels like an uphill battle.

        • It is certainly beneficial to be able to write well in society and use correct grammar. I just can’t imagine getting so bothered by some grammatical rule that is would alter my enjoyment of a story. It’s such a trival issue in my humble opinion. I want a good story by an author who has a good turn of phrase. That is my preference not that something has to be perfect.

          • I agree to an extent. I think it really just depends on the severity of the grammar problem. If I notice it continually in a piece of writing, I start to feel judgmental. Most people do, actually. I read a study once that showed that on online dating sites, people rejected potential dates who displayed poor grammar skills, even if the person seemed otherwise interesting!

            If a book is sloppily edited, I might well feel annoyed. But if there are only occasional grammar errors, I don’t waste time feeling bothered and like you, I can also be annoyed by those who nitpick grammar, and I say that as an English teacher. In the scheme of things, there are often more important issues.

      • I’ve been thinking and I realized I’m being both hypocritical and judgemental. I have lots of pet peeves and I do pick on things I don’t like. I’ll never agree with other posters correcting someone’s grammar in a post or someone pointing out a mistake in a casusal conversation or email but in this context it’s valid. Sorry for the rude response.

        • Sorry if I came across as making any assumptions. I think perhaps it was the “I hate grammar police” that set off my warning bells. I know others do find my focus on such details to be a bit silly – reread my remark about my husband! He often rolls his eyes when I point out problems with a bit of writing, thinking that as long as the message has been received, everything else is nitpicking.

          I won’t repeat it but my reply to Eliza below really sums up my reasoning behind my “rants” about what I see as problematic writing. I hate being distracted from a story by something that, to me, seems so common-sensical and easy to avoid. Too, I confess that I’m baffled by the idea that people who truly don’t seem to know, understand, or care that they are making some blatant mistakes are able to get books published before those problems are fixed. Maybe it really is about standards – I guess I just feel like we are all selling ourselves short by accepting writers (and copyeditors) who can’t be bothered to learn the fundamental rules of their very craft – how to write a sentence that is grammatically accurate with correct punctuation.

          It’s all good. :)

    • Writing well is not “just” about “rules.” Writing indicates the clarity and depth of a writer’s thought processes and talent–or not. If one is going to be published, why on earth on not make it as clear and as well done as possible, which generally means following the rules which are there for a reason. Only a writer who knows the rules knows how to break them for effect. The others who can’t bother to know the rules or care less about them have no clue about what they’re missing. And I do think language matters. A lot. Of course people make mistakes–they’re human–but language is also a human blessing, so why on earth not go for clarity and depth of thought in every way possible?

      • Good point, Eliza. For me, using correct grammar, spelling, punctuation and all of the other tools of writing helps me enjoy a story. A writer could have concepted the most interesting plot and people her story with absolutely fascinating characters, but if I keep getting distracted by problems with the actual writing itself, I never manage to lose myself in what could be an absolutely wonderful story. The books that I find that I love the most are the ones where the “writing” disappears completely. I don’t notice the words on the page or all of the technical details involved in crafting written prose because my eyes and brain “see” what it expects to see based on what I understand to be the rules of English grammar. When something deviates from those rules, my brain can’t process what it sees and I fall out of the story. It causes a mental hiccup, if you will. So for me, keeping to the commonly accepted rules of writing will allow me to enjoy a well-told story.

        • Jenna said, ” The books that I find that I love the most are the ones where the “writing” disappears completely.”

          This exactly! When it happens, you know you’ve read a true master writer and storyteller. Why settle for one when you can have both?

    • But this is the publishing industry!
      I can understand your sentiments if we were picking on grammar in other industries, but these books go through paid editors and copy editors who should know better. I am the editor on a regional newspaper and spend my life correcting one of our writer’s comma splices.
      It drives me mental. It really is such basic stuff. Use a bloody full-stop at the end of a sentence.
      My other bug bear is when people use the word “less” when instead of “fewer”.
      Also, when copy is written correctly, it is much easier to read because the meaning is clear. That is the reason we have these rules.

  14. Interesting topic. In the Bronze Age we too called it a comma splice. We were taught that how you write and express yourself is how clearly one is able to think. Same goes for reading too, IMO. Bring on the punctuation police, I say!

    I think several things are going on currently though:

    1. U.S. language usage and punctuation is in a most definite downturn, and not just because of the Internet, et al.
    2. Some of the problem is financing for education, some of it is likely fewer copy editors at publishers because of economics and making a buck, and some is the dumbing down of your culture in a variety of ways.

    My personal pet peeve? IS and ARE are verbs that should be capitalized in book titles, articles if other words besides the first word and proper nouns are capped, etc. They are often incorrectly lowercased (as “small words”) in book titles here at AAR and by one of my favorite authors who is also a teacher. Arrrgh! If we can’t get verbs right, what chances do commas have?

  15. I am one of those people who gets distracted and dismayed at poor grammar in novels. It is true that the standard of English language education has deteriorated since my parents’ time (they keep telling me, and I observe it myself too). And if grammar is hardly taught well anymore, if at all, in native English-speaking cultures, it’s far, far worse when English is taught as a second language. Students then have to learn from reading widely – but when the widely available reading material (such as novels or media, whether internet or print) has grammatical errors, then how can students know the difference?

    I always think of grammar in language as synonymous to rhythm and timing in playing music. One can have syncopation as a style, and have improvisation, but in playing music, one needs to keep in time with the notations on the piece. This is particularly true if one is part of an ensemble/orchestra and playing different parts of a piece together. A badly timed note ruins the entire performance.

    I love the comma splice quizzes you included in the article! Please excuse any comma splice mistakes that I may have made unintentionally in my post!

    • I think our educational system has plenty to answer for, but I also think that children need to have parents and caretakers reinforcing at home what they learn in school. I often am dismayed that so many parents simply put education solely on the backs of teachers and spend little time working with their children outside of school. My own parents spent lots of time with me and my sister supplementing our education in the evenings and weekends, and studies do show that children absorb much outside of school. I do agree also that if our reading materials are riddled with poor grammar and writing skills, we have an additional problem in learning and even retaining what we have learned already.

      • I think our whole culture has a lot to answer for. With so many single parents or parents with multiple jobs just trying to get by is a significant problem. That doesn’t excuse the the parents’ responsibility for being a good model of communication though. But I still think the problem goes back to the culture, if only because of the the current state of education–along with other things, like MONEY.

        As for English as a second language, I’ve observed many non-native speakers who must have taken their studies seriously and listened because many times they’re better speakers than too many Americans. If there is a problem, it tends to be with an idiom–a common language issue–and not with the basics of literacy. Watch a newscast with a non-American, non-native English speaker, and then watch an American describe a car accident or some such event and the difference jumps right out you.

        • Well, I don’t actually think the problem is “single mothers” per se, as mothers, married or not, can reinforce what a child learns at school, especially if the family unit is extensive and includes a number of supportive people. The nuclear family is just one possible “family” among many possibilities. I still love the old expression that “it takes a village.” Also, culture is a concept that includes private and public spheres alike and so family connectedness with educational institutions are part of culture. *Money is certainly a huge factor though and there is terrible discrepancies between quality of education depending on the wealth of a region and the wealth of families and the amount of taxpayer funds to support it. Also, standardization of education and the “teach-to-the-test” mentality is terribly destructive too and has reinforced class and racial biases in education today while reducing education to a very limited sphere of knowledge. It’s a complex problem all in all and will need complex resolutions. It’s harder to fit grammar into the curriculum when 3/4 of the school year is focused on test scores and training children how to sit for the test.

          • When I said MONEY above, I meant very specific things that apply to our whole culture these days ( although not to every single individual necessarily, of course):

            1. As a society with a decreasing middle class (which WAS my point above that I apparently didn’t make well enough), we’re rapidly moving toward being a nation of haves and have nots. When too many people are struggling for food and shelter, somehow commas just don’t seem to matter all that much.

            2. As a society we tend to focus on money, the material, and acquiring all kinds of stuff. Period. While one group is bemoaning the lack of a book’s being available on kindle, there are those who have limited access, the guidance, or even the hope for those kinds of “extras.” The number of robberies not just for money but for cell phones, IPads and such illustrate that all too well.

            3. We just don’t have enough public figures and our society as a whole elevating what is truly important to human life beyond the material, especially when all too many new stories focus on blatant fraud and money schemes, from bankers to teachers to people on the street.

            As an add-on about the original language question–
            while I’m glad for those who want to write and go for it themselves through e-publishing, too many of those writers are not helping language at all, at all, by failing to get qualified editorial help when they need it, that is, if they even know they have need of it. Some of what I’ve read gives me the flat out shivers and fear for the future of eloquency, as well as for plain ole clear communication.

          • Yes, I completely agree that we are a society of huge class discrepancies. I see the effects in education all the time, and I also teach many students now that are literally drowning in student debt, with very little chance to pay it off before their retirements. I fear too for the future when more than half of all college students graduating today are not able to determine a fact from an opinion, much less how to locate a comma splice.

  16. THANK YOU. You’ve hit upon the type of English mangling that drives me most insane. I only disagreed with one thing you said. “Great writers can make it work.” No. They can’t, no more than great geologists can make granite float. It simply does not work.

    • I can think of instances where it could work in terms of characterisation. For a example a character who never stops talking, but has very little to say. You could write his/her monologues like that to give the reader the exact same eye-roll moment other people in the story are having. I tried something like that once with a minor character in a short story. Unfortunately I was working with a rather tight word count (2000 words) and had to cut Cousin Maria’s babble very considerably. A friend who proof-read the original version said she wanted to clock Maria over the head, so I suppose it worked.

      • I’ve been thinking of the exception of characterization you mentioned, Elizabeth, and I can’t decide if I could live with that or not, lol! I understand what you are saying, but I think it might still grate on my nerves when reading it. I suppose I’m going to have to find an example where this is used, but is done in a skillful enough manner that it doesn’t immediately yank me out of the story. Are there any books in particular that you can think of off the top of your head where this is done?

        • Would there be a difference between the character grating on your nerves, and being yanked out of the story? People frequently speak ungrammatically in life as well as in fiction. We waffle, repeat things and rarely speak in perfectly constructed sentences. I think one of the tricks with dialogue is to give the sense of real speech without having to reproduce it exactly. If we actually wrote down someone’s speech in a book, exactly as we recorded it, it would be cumbersome.
          I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, of someone using comma splices as a means of delineating character. I’d have to look. I did it without even thinking about it when I wrote the short story. I knew what I was doing, but the irritating woman just kept babbling on like that in my head, so I went with it.

          • “Would there be a difference between the character grating on your nerves, and being yanked out of the story?”

            Oh, my heavens, yes. There is a HUGE difference between dropping out of a story due to stumbling over incorrect writing and coming across an irritating character. They are not the same thing at all. Not even close.

            While I am well aware that real speech is often grammatically incorrect, I don’t agree that this means it should be written as just a stream of consciousness coming out of the author’s head. No offense meant, but the fact that you “did it without even thinking about it” really bothers me, because I think that’s exactly what the problem is with so many of today’s beginning writers. They do it without even thinking about it. It’s still wrong.

          • You missed the bit where I said I knew what I was doing. I could see exactly where the character’s speech was taking me. When I wrote that I did it without thinking, I meant that I didn’t sit there first wondering how to make the character irritating. Until she started talking I didn’t even know she was going to be irritating. She just came out that way.

            Also, when you write a first draft, it’s a lot better just to WRITE. Stopping to second-guess yourself or self-edit is fatal. At least it is for me. It stops the flow. That’s what second drafts are for. I draft a lot of my writing in notebooks anyway and type it up later. Usually that happens when the flow of ideas has slowed. I edit while I’m typing. For some reason I’m more creative with pen and paper. Someone once told me there is actually a physiological reason for that, but I just do it because it works for me.

  17. I shared a link to your blog post with the writing faculty at my community college where I teach chemistry. I found it very depressing that books for young adults are not edited better. They are the people who most need to see correctly structured written material so they will recognize poor writing when they see it.
    One thing I loved to do when I was in school, which I believe has gone the way of dinosaurs, was diagraming sentences. It may have been tedious but I did learn a lot about sentence structure and the use of punctuation.

  18. Elizabeth Rolls: It wouldn’t let me reply to your last post. No, I didn’t miss the part where you said you knew what you were doing. It’s just that I’ve never once seen an example where using comma splices actually worked, even when used in dialogue for “characterization”. Without seeing an example, I’ll just have to take your word for it when you say it works for you. But if you do come up with a great example, I really would love to see it.

    As for the writing in a stream of consciousness for the first draft, I totally agree. I really didn’t make myself very clear on what I meant here. Sorry for that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing everything down quickly, exactly as it comes to you. Indeed, I think you are absolutely right in that it keeps the ideas flowing well. However, when it comes time to do the second and third drafts, that is the time to clean up that stream of ideas into cohesive writing–and that means editing out all grammatical mistakes, including comma splices.

    • Hi Corinna, nothing to apologise for. I was a little unclear, too. If I think of any great examples I’ll post them, but right now I’m up to my neck in tax, the current book and a workshop I foolishly agreed to do.

      As for editing grammatical mistakes out, well, one does one’s best. However in the case of dialogue, I’m more likely to allow a certain amount of leeway. Or even if the narrative is in the pov of a character unlikely to have a strong grasp of grammar. For example, my current book has several characters from the criminal classes. Most of them aren’t speaking, or even thinking, the King’s English – which probably had a strong German accent anyway.

    • Hi Corinna, I didn’t think of an example featuring endless comma splices, as far as I can recall, but I did think of a series of books where the grammar is deliberately poor.
      Ben Aaronovitch’s P.C Grant series. Starting with Rivers of London, the books are set in London and involve a young police officer, one Peter Grant. Peter is somewhat startled one night to witness a most bizarre murder and to discover that the only other witness is a ghost. Beyond his hitherto unsuspected talent for magic and seeing ghosts, Peter is from one of London’s housing estates. His education is somewhat patchy, especially in the grammar department and the story is told in the first person. Personally I enjoyed these books immensely. The grammar doesn’t bother me. Sure I notice it, but it’s so much a part of the character that far from yanking me from the story, it keeps me in it. It might drive you to drink.

      • Hi Elizabeth! Thanks so much for the tip on the book–it sounds intriguing, and I hope to check it out–but I’m still not sure I’m making myself clear. The thing is, I don’t have any problem at all with bad grammar in dialogue. For that matter, I suspect that most of the most interesting characters we read about (not to mention ourselves) speak with less than perfect and even atrocious grammar. I would certainly hate for writers to begin giving us dialogue full of perfectly diagrammed sentences. How silly would that be? ;) And yes, that sort of real speech, with all its flaws, does help keep me engrossed in a story.

        It’s just that I don’t believe comma splices are a good way to go about depicting the imperfect speech that makes dialogue feel so real to us as readers. As I know you are aware, if writers put speech down on paper exactly as it comes out of our mouths, it generally makes a jumbled mess. For example, we all tend to speak in one run-on sentence after another. But writing dialogue like that doesn’t work. Bad grammar being spoken by a character does not translate to bad grammar being used to tell the story. Many a great writer has flawlessly portrayed a lowly character’s uneducated way of speech without once resorting to incohesive sentence structure.

        But I’m still willing to take a look at what could be samples to prove me wrong on that, so do keep me in mind if you run across one! Thanks Elizabeth! :)

  19. I remember reading Joyce Carol Oates’s “We Were the Mulvaneys” years ago. It was a pretty good story, but it drove me batty with the comma splices–particularly since the “narrator” was supposed to be a journalist/writer.

    • P.S. I read quite a bit of literary fiction, and I sometimes get the impression that seemingly unnecessary comma splices are the “in” thing among the overly educated. Perhaps comma splices are the literary equivalent of “slumming.”

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