Ad and marketing creatives
Red Pen Diaries: Zero Tolerance for Comma Splices
Are comma splices running rampant, or is it just me?
I keep seeing them in newspapers and magazines and on billboards and can't help but wonder if they, too, are now becoming acceptable, as have so many once-verboten grammar, ahem, alternatives before them. I sure hope not — as you might guess, I'm agin 'em.
So you can imagine my ire when I saw this in the New York Daily News recently: "She had a headache, she had no signs of impact, no bleeding."
Now I know the New York Daily News is not the New York Times (as if they've managed to remain above the fray), but the appearance of the comma splice in that context chagrined me mightily. As some of you have likely surmised, it sullied an (otherwise acceptable) article about Natasha Richardson's fatal skiing accident, posted online in the hours after the incident but before the actress was removed from life support. I was gripped by the story. I wanted details. I wanted an explanation. What I did not want was to be forced to re-read the line "She had a headache, she had no signs of impact, no bleeding." What I did not want was to stumble over this critical information. What I did not want was to be stopped — nonplussed — on my way to finding out how this could have happened.
When I see a comma splice, I usually dismiss it with an internal "effin' moron" aimed at the perpetrator. But the stakes felt higher in this instance. I felt the paper was insulting not only me but also Richardson and her family. You'd think among the three of them, the Daily News staff writers responsible for this piece could have avoided the damn comma splice. I don't care if the copy desk has been decimated and they're doing the work of six journalists — they've got staff jobs in this economy; they should act like they deserve them. In the spirit of not just bitching about the problem but becoming part of the solution, the following goes out to them.
Per Wikipedia (which borrows liberally from Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style): "A comma splice is a sentence in which two independent clauses [i.e. each of which can stand on its own as a complete sentence] are joined by a comma without a coordinating conjunction. For example: It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark ... A coordinating conjunction is one of the following seven words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so ... Only semicolons and periods are strong enough to separate two independent clauses without a conjunction ... Simply removing the comma does not correct the error, but results in a run-on sentence. There are several ways to correct this:
- Change the comma to a semicolon: It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
- Write the two clauses as two separate sentences: It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark.
- Insert a coordinating conjunction following the comma: It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark. It is nearly half past five, so we cannot reach town before dark.
- Make one clause dependent on the other: As it is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark."
So there you have the formal explanation. On a more personal level, what I ask myself in identifying a comma splice is: "Are there two complete sentences mashed together with a comma between them?" Of course, to determine that one must know what constitutes a complete sentence. For this I call upon Grammar Girl, who said in her podcast of Dec. 15, 2006 (episode 30), entitled "Sentence Fragments":
"In the most basic form, a complete sentence must have a subject and a verb. A verb is an action word that tells the reader what's happening, and a subject does the action of the verb. You can make a complete sentence with just two words: Squiggly hurried. Squiggly, our beloved snail, is the subject, and hurried is the verb." This reminds me of a boy I knew in high school named Tim Shook. Very handsome. Maltese heritage. Loved Aerosmith. Those were sentence fragments, by the way.
In my book, sentence fragments can be kosher, and I'll take this opportunity to point out that there are exceptions to the laws governing comma splices (shocking, I know). Wikipedia again quotes The Elements of Style: "Splices are sometimes acceptable when the clauses are short and alike in form, such as: The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up."
I don't like that construction much either. Nor can I get behind the various canonical authors who employ the comma splice as art. I don't care who you are — if you're gluing together independent clauses/complete sentences with a comma, you're doing your reader a disservice and, in the case of outdoor advertisers, inviting vandalism. I've said to myself more than once, "If I could just get up there with a can of spray paint, I could turn that comma into a semicolon and all would be right with the world." Don't push me, people.
Seen any juicy comma splices lately? Let us know in the comments below!