The Craft of Writing

Comma Splices are Fine, Fight Me

July 22, 2017

Me: I don’t know. I don’t really have strong opinions about grammar.

Also me: Comma splices are fucking fine, meet me in the back alley.

Menacing finger snapping from West Side Story

Don’t get me wrong. If I’m editing your manuscript, I’m still going to flag and/or fix them for you.

I don’t ever want you to accidentally do something a reader might think is “wrong.”

But if you’re like, “Nah, actually, I meant to do that,” I’m not going to be like, “OMG YOU’RE RUINING EVERYTHING. Don’t even think about crediting me in your acknowledgments.”

I’m going to be like, “Cool. I can see why you’d want to do that.”

And that, in my opinion, is the only reasonable reaction for a genre fiction editor to have.

Wait. What’s a comma splice again?

It’s when you join two independent clauses with just a comma.

I used it in my introduction when I wrote, “Comma splices are fucking fine, meet me in the back alley.”

Here are some more examples:

The causes don’t matter, the enemy can be anybody.Anthony Burgess, 1985
They were the best of friends, they saved each other’s life countless times, they laughed and talked together over campfires long into the night.Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife
The hawk turned and skated off down the wind and vanished beyond the cape of the mountain, a single feather fell.Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
His name was Edward Hutchins, he was English, he was fifty-four.Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby
She can move through the woods like a shadow, you have to give her that.Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

I didn’t create any of those splices myself, by the way. I copied them from Stan Carey, who copied them, comma splice and all, from the source texts.

What’s the problem with comma splices?

Nothing. Haven’t you been paying attention?

But technically, in the English language, there are three “proper” ways to join independent clauses:

  • With a semicolon: Comma splices are fucking fine; meet me in the back alley.
  • With a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so): They were the best of friends, they saved each other’s life countless times, [and] they laughed and talked together over campfires long into the night.
  • With a semicolon followed by a conjunctive adverb (however, on the other hand, etc.) followed by a comma: The causes don’t matter[; for that matter], the enemy can be anybody.

A comma alone isn’t one of those three proper ways.

That’s it. That’s the entire argument against the comma splice.

Well, and, “You aren’t Cormac McCarthy,” but you already know how I feel about that one.

They don’t make your writing hard to understand. They don’t add unnecessary bulk to your sentence. And they don’t even send mean DMs to book bloggers who write negative reviews of their books.

I refuse to hate them just because they’re improper.

Why Comma Splices are Becoming More Common

The way I see it, the comma splice has two benefits you don’t get from any other usage.

It replaces a relatively uncommon punctuation mark (the semicolon) with a common punctuation mark (the comma).

I have a journalist’s irrational hatred of unnecessary characters. If the language shifts in such a way that we can eliminate an entire key from our future keyboards, I’m on board.

Goodbye, en-dash! Farewell, semicolon! Take the forward slash with you when you go, please.

(I’m joking, kind of, but I’m serious about my preference for linguistic simplicity.)

It shows a closer relationship between two independent clauses than a semicolon can convey.

Think of it like a sliding scale.

The period occupies the far left side of the scale. When you have two unrelated independent clauses, separate them with a period:

Comma splices are fucking fine. Meet me in the back alley.

The semicolon lives in the middle. When you have two independent clauses that are kinda related, join them with a semicolon:

She can move through the woods like a shadow[;] you have to give her that.

The comma splice is all the way on the right. When you have two independent clauses that are so closely related they’re basically identical twins, you can join them with a comma splice:

His name was Edward Hutchins, he was English, he was fifty-four.

But you don’t have to. I’m not here to twist your arm into breaking the rules. I’m just saying, as a writer, it’s your call to make.


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