Friday, May 3, 2013
Revisiting the Comma Splice
I am currently reading The Tree of Man, by Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel laureate for literature to date. It is his fourth novel, first published in 1955. I have been astonished to see how frequently he uses the comma splice! I have become more and more aware of the comma splice lately, as it is so widespread in the books that I edit. I am wondering if I am noticing it more now in the work of established writers as a result. It also occurs very, very frequently in French novels, to the extent that it seems quite normal. Perhaps they do not have the same “rule”. I must admit that when an “error” becomes this widely used, I have to start wondering if it is an error at all.
I will quickly remind you what a comma splice is, it is when two grammatically complete sentences are linked only by a comma. Those who are alert to these things will have noticed that the previous sentence is an example of that. I should have written:
I will quickly remind you what a comma splice is. It is when two grammatically complete sentences are linked only by a comma.
I will quickly remind you what a comma splice is; it is when two grammatically complete sentences are linked only by a comma.
Now I sometimes commit this error myself when writing, although I rarely, if ever, do it intentionally. Other technical grammatical errors, such as sentence fragments, I use quite frequently for effect. The comma splice I have never found useful for any particular effect. But is it an error at all, or simply a question of style?
I have no objection to writers deliberately breaking the rules of grammar to create an effect. As I have indicated, I do it myself all the time. I do become concerned, however, when people do so carelessly, or out of ignorance for the correct form. I use the comma splice carelessly sometimes, and feel embarrassed when I am caught out by someone else. My main concern is that people often use this form because they are not quite sure what constitutes a sentence, and/or do not understand the correct use of different conjunctions or conjunctive adverbs. The following, for instance, is incorrect:
There is no admission fee, however you will be responsible for any food you order.
While this is correct:
There is no admission fee, although you will be responsible for any food you order.
The first sentence is a comma splice, and should be written thus:
There is no admission fee. However, you will be responsible for any food you order.
“Although” is a conjunction that introduces a concessive clause. Here “however” is used as a conjunctive adverb which requires something stronger than a comma (either a semi-colon or a full stop). Unfortunately, this seems to be something that you simply need to know. (It is very difficult to explain subtleties like this to people for whom English is a second language.)
However, the comma splice is used much more widely than this. It is used even when no conjunction is involved. It would not surprise me at all to see the previous two sentences written thus:
However, the comma splice is used much more widely than this, it is used even when no conjunction is involved.
It seems to me that people feel that a sentence needs to be a certain length, and that neither of these clauses is quite long enough to constitute a sentence on its own. But, of course, a sentence can be very short. “I cried” is a sentence. Perhaps people think that two closely related ideas should be contained within a single sentence. I agree. However, the two parts need to be separated by a semi-colon.
Is grammar losing the battle over the comma splice? Is the comma splice becoming acceptable usage? In one book that I copy edited, I estimate that at least one in three sentences were technically comma splices. Should I, as an editor and proofreader, be correcting each and every one of those, or should I accept it as the writer’s style? In the end I corrected them, because I believe the author was unaware of what he was doing. I also explained to them exactly what they were doing. I think I was right to do so. What do you think?
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