Comma Splices

Erroneous or Stylistic Flair?

In traditional grammar, the term comma splice refers to two independent clauses separated by a comma instead of a period or semicolon. Comma splices, also known as comma faults, are often regarded as errors, especially if they're likely to confuse or distract readers.

However, comma splices may be used deliberately to emphasize the relationship between two short parallel clauses or to create a rhetorical effect of speed, excitement, or informality, though the result is almost always a run-on sentence.

The easiest way to fix this type of error is to substitute a period or semicolon for the comma, though a process of coordination and subordination may also be used to make the sentence grammatically correct.

Getting Away with Errors

One of the most important rules English writers learn early on in studying grammar is that a writer must understand the rules of usage in order to break them effectively — that's the beauty of the English language: versatility.

Even the popular style guidebook "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White say that a comma splice is "preferable [to a semicolon] when the clauses are very short and alike in form, or when the tone of the sentence is easy and conversational."

Built-in spelling and grammar checking services on popular word editing software like Microsoft Word even misses some comma splices because of the versatility of the comma's usage and the frequency and eloquence of effective comma splice use in literature and professional writing.

In advertising and journalism, a comma splice can be used for dramatic or stylistic effect or to emphasize a contrast between different ideas. Ann Raimes and Susan K. Miller-Cochran describe this usage choice in "Keys for Writers," wherein they advise writers to "take this stylistic risk only if you are sure of the effect you want to achieve."

Correcting Comma Splices

The most difficult part of correcting comma splices is actually identifying the error in the first place, wherein the writer must determine if the clauses can stand alone or if they belong together. Fortunately, once the writer determines a comma splice has been made in error, there are five common ways to fix the mistake.

Edward P. Bailey and Philip A. Powell use the incorrectly spliced sentence "we hiked for three days, we were very tired" to illustrate the five common ways of fixing splices in "The Practical Writer." The first method they offer is to change the comma to a period and capitalize the next word and the second is to change the comma to a semicolon.

From there, it gets a bit more complicated. Bailey and Powell offer that a writer can also change the comma to a semicolon and add a conjunctive adverb like "hence" so that the newly corrected sentence will read "we hiked for three days; hence, we were very tired." On the other hand, a writer could also leave the comma in place but add a coordinating conjunction like "so" before the second independent clause.

Finally, the writer can change one of the independent clauses to an independent clause by adding a prepositional phrase like "because," making the corrected sentence read "Because we hiked for three days, we were very tired."

In any of these cases, the writer is able to clarify their meaning and ease the audience's comprehension of the text. Sometimes, especially in poetic prose, it is better to leave the splice, though — it makes for more dynamic writing.