Thursday, July 25, 2019

Revisiting the Comma Splice

One of the difficulties as an editor, particularly when working with fiction, is to know when to be a stickler for the rules. For some people this is not an issue: rules are rules, and that's the end of the matter. Some of us, however, acknowledge that grammar does not have rules in the same sense that mathematics has rules. If you break the rules in mathematics, what you are trying to achieve won't work. However, if you break the rules in grammar, your meaning is often still clear. Furthermore, the 'rules' in grammar clearly change over time. Rather I should say that the conventions change. The rules of grammar are less rules than guidelines and conventions for the facilitation of communication.

At times, particularly when there is ambiguity, the rules are vital. At other times, less so.

Which brings us to the issue of the comma splice. This is when two independent clauses are connected by a comma only. Sometimes this is referred to as a run-on sentence, but the latter is probably better understood as two (or more) independent clauses linked by no punctuation. An example of a comma splice is this:

There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk, there was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.

The strict grammarian will want to correct this to:

There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk. There was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.


There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk, and there was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.


There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk; there was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.

Here is another example:

Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault.

Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it. There was an inconsistency, a fault.

The first example is Agatha Christie. The second from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark.

It turns out, in fact, that comma splices are very common in literature from all eras. Stan Carey in his blog on the topic ( began collecting just 1-3 examples from each book he read and had soon accumulated more than 10,000 words!

So when an 'error' becomes this widespread, can it still be regarded as an error? Does it not become accepted usage? It's not even new. Examples will be found in almost any nineteenth century novel. Even the stricter grammarians will acknowledge that linking short independent clauses with just a comma is acceptable: 'It wasn't cold, it was quite hot.'

The challenge as an editor is: Do I correct these comma splices? If I correct one, do I correct them all? Is the writer doing this intentionally? If so, what effect are they trying to achieve? Is it working? Or does the writer simply not realise they are doing it?

My tendency is still to correct these as I think that, most often, these splices are unintentional, but I may be wrong.

My advice to writers, as with all such rule-breaking, is this: If you are going to use the comma splice, first be aware that you are doing it. Then be clear about your reasons for doing so. And, if it's really important to you, perhaps give your editor a heads-up.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Gratitude, therefore God?

I recently saw a video where a prominent TV personality was interviewing another TV personality who is a self-proclaimed atheist. The interviewer explained that he looked at the wonder of the world around him and experienced a sense of gratitude, and that he needed someone to express that gratitude to, i.e., God. I don't think the atheist's response to this was particularly insightful, but here is what I would say about that response of 'gratitude'.

Our spontaneous feelings are not always an appropriate response to the world around us. They need to be tempered by reason. For example, even adults can sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and experience a sense of terror at the darkness around them. This feeling is very real and difficult to shake off, but it is not appropriate. Reason needs to step in, turn on the light, and demonstrate that there is actually nothing to be afraid of. I don't think anyone can deny (particularly these days) that people frequently and easily become very angry. However, this response is often anything but appropriate, and certainly not reasonable, and, again, reason, rationality, needs to step in and take control. Our emotional responses to the world and events around us are, while perfectly genuine, not always appropriate and can have very dangerous real-world consequences.

I understand the response of gratitude to the wonders of the world around us. However, just as, when we wake up in terror during the night, there is usually nothing and no one to be afraid of, so too when we feel this sense of 'gratitude', I would argue that there is no one to actually be grateful to. In fact, I would say that what I feel is a sense of wonder, perhaps even a sense of happiness and joy, rather than gratitude.

Interpreting and constructing our view of reality on the basis of what we happen to feel at a particular moment is fraught with danger. Take a moment and let reason have its say.

The other point to make is that our sense of 'gratitude' is based on a highly filtered view of the world. Take a closer look and there will be plenty to be somewhat less than grateful for. Are the victims of an earthquake or a tsunami or an epidemic filled with gratitude at the wonder of the world? Should they be? They are more likely to be filled with anger at 'God', which is no more appropriate. I may be angry in such a situation, but there is no one to be actually angry towards. (So we often direct that anger towards earthly agencies that  we feel didn't do enough to prevent or respond to the situation.)

Feelings are real, but they are often misdirected. Feel 'gratitude' because of the beauty of the world, and before long we have a multitude of organised religions. Reason is far from perfect, but give it a chance. Irrationality has governed humanity for many millenia, and often still does. Rationality has had much less time to operate among us, and it is up against a powerful adversary. An adversary that is clearly fighting back today.

Don't deny your feelings, but don't be hasty about constructing your world view upon their foundation.