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.

Or:

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.

Or:

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 (https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/oh-the-splices-youll-see/) 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.

1 comment:

  1. I may use the comma splice a little more than I should. Even editors like Grammarly are allowing the splice, to the point that they will give the suggestion to use it. I am learning that it can be overdone, like you say intentional placement. But I need to continually ask myself, why? Thank you for the reminder.

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