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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!

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 20th 2009, 5:02 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
I found this post to be useful. As a result of reading it my grammar might improve. I have two questions and one comment though.

The question: why are there only seven co-ordinating conjunctions? I found the following list of words/phrases on the net that were considered as weak joining words (i.e. not strong enough to co-ordinate two sentence splices without one of the seven): however, accordingly, meanwhile, likewise, therefore, consequently, nonetheless, otherwise, thus, as a result, in fact, on the other hand, for example, certainly, anyway, conversely, for instance, finally, furthermore, on the contrary, also, incidentally, further, undoubtedly, instead, namely, thereafter, indeed, similarly, in the same way, subsequently, as a matter of fact, besides, moreover, in other words, that is, nevertheless, in addition, additionally.

I'm wondering why none of the above weak phrases/words is strong enough to join two sentence splices. In particular I, being a scientist, have used 'thus' quite a lot. It seems to me that 'thus' can only ever follow 'and,' so adding the 'and' is superfluous. Is it possible that we are excluding new co-ordinating conjunctions because 'everyone knows there are only seven'? When was the last time a new co-ordinating conjunction was added to the English language?

My second question relates to the sentence you began "Nor can I get behind[...]" I can't help but feel that beginning a sentence with 'Nor' is like beginning a sentence with 'And,' since both are co-ordinating conjunctions. It seems to me that the issue of avoiding comma splices is strongly related to this issue involving beginning sentences. I consider myself not to be an expert in grammar, but rather more like an interested amateur, thus my question is a genuine one: if we only have seven co-ordinating conjunctions, then shouldn't we save them for the middle of sentences? To me, beginning a sentence with one of them feels too much like the sentence is a fragment, and can't stand on its own.

The comment I had relates to use for artistic purposes. Do you regard writing as an art form? Sometimes, as a writer, it feels appropriate to break the rules for artistic purposes. In particular, sometimes it is appropriate to break the readers rhythm to build tension or change the emphasis in a passage, or maybe to enforce a different rhythm on the reader – particularly in fiction. I suspect when you said art, you were thinking more of "posterised" art, but I would appreciate an elaboration.
Monday April 20th 2009, 11:08 AM
Comment by: Joe L.
I think punctuation is only a problem when readers are drawn to the punctuation and taken out of the narrative. If you're extra-sensitive to what's supposed to be correct and what isn't, punctuation is going to be more distracting for you than normal.

Comma-splicing does something that cannot be done any other way. Everyday spoken language includes comma-splicing. The closest punctuation we have is the semicolon, but semicolons are distracting for most readers. Semicolons carry a haughty air, and if we try to capture everyday speech in writing using semicolons we are going to completely distract the average reader. I don't think semicolons are equivalent anyway, because they provide more of a stop than commas do, and because they don't serve lists (of clauses) well.

If we want our writing to sound conversational and not let the punctuation be distracting to the average reader, we will find ourselves using comma-splicing. The author of the above article is not an average reader, and I think average readers are better left able to read conversational narrative without inducing them to artificial sensitivity to comma-splicing.

(Even so, comma-splicing can be abused or used ineffectively, as with any punctuation.)
Monday April 20th 2009, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Emily O. (Oakland, CA)
The use of "nor" to start a sentence is one of those instances where emphasis seemed to require it and it felt okay to them to break the rule. Grammatically speaking, preceding it with a comma would have been ok and then not attracted any attention!

As far as the original sentence, it seems lazy, as well as incorrect. Like what you would say if you were talking. :)
"She had a headache, she had no signs of impact, no bleeding."

It bothered me that the "no bleeding" was tacked on at the end, with no attempt to make that parallel to the other mini-sentences. But you couldn't really have parallel sentences because the first was positive, and the other two negative. Poor Natasha. I'm so sorry she was so far from the help that she needed. Well, I would have thought it out more and written:

Although she did have a headache (one of the signs of concussion), she had no signs of impact nor was there bleeding.

Ah well, maybe they had a word limitation. Not to mention time!
Monday April 20th 2009, 12:07 PM
Comment by: scott M.
I welcome comma splices. I abhor conjunctions, especially the unnecessarily ubiquitous "and". Comma splices enable brevity, which further enables inclusion of more information in less space. Repeat after me: I do NOT need to use conjunctions, especially "and", to connect words, phrases, clauses that have the same grammatical function in a construction.

The moment I saw "Strunk & White" and "Elements of Style" I knew we were in for trouble. Never has so much bad, self-contradicting, unintentionally hilarious advice about grammar and style been given by so few and blindly followed by so many. For those interested in specifics I direct you to this article, entitled "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice":
The article is written by Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh and co-author (with Rodney Huddleston) of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Here's an excerpt from Pullum's piece:

"Put statements in positive form," they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent "not" from being used as "a means of evasion."

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That's actually not just three strikes, it's four, because in addition to contravening "positive form" and "active voice" and "nouns and verbs," it has a relative clause ("that can pull") removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: "Keep related words together."

So. Back to comma splices. Use them, get used to them, enjoy them, save energy with them. It's OK, no problem, lighten up, get used to it, relax. Or - don't use them, and continue to write unnecessarily long, unnatural, "grammatically correct" sentences. Just please don't write them to me.

Recycle your copy of "The Elements of Style"! Except when you're in the mood to laugh, of course.
Monday April 20th 2009, 12:20 PM
Comment by: Todd D. (Calgary Canada)
Any linguist will tell you - writers publishing in English create a record to determine the only rules we have - that is, USAGE determines CORRECTNESS. It's a truly democratic language unlike French and Spanish, which have official academies to hand down laws.
Relax, enjoy it, all those rule books are CREATED by the author(s), trying to rein in our unruly language.
Ever noticed how English translations of instructions are shorter than other languages? That's because, in the natural course of things, they will become more streamlined if allowed to. Therefore, no declensions, genders, etc.
Monday April 20th 2009, 1:00 PM
Comment by: Art K. (Key West, FL)
The line that set you off, "She had a headache, she had no signs of impact, no bleeding,"
conveys to me the urgency of the situation, the urgency everyone missed, at first.

New writing must shirk the formal, get right to the point. Content rules, time fleets.

English celebrates communication, America innovation, the French such precious language-isms as this.
Monday April 20th 2009, 1:06 PM
Comment by: Suroor A.
I would like to stand up for the much-maligned semi-colon. There is nothing haughty about a semi-colon. Where did it get that reputation? It serves a specific purpose and a comma is just not a substitute. Are we dumbing down English? The way we speak might use comma splicing, but we don't--and shouldn't--write that way. It doesn't make the sentence easy to read and, after all, that's one of the basic tenets of good writing.
Monday April 20th 2009, 3:46 PM
Comment by: jaci C.
Well, I noticed a the absence of a few commas in the article. I think it was not only me, but others as well.
Monday April 20th 2009, 4:05 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
Commas are running rampant and out of breath. The sentence that made you want to scream could have been saved by a semi-colon.
Monday April 20th 2009, 4:44 PM
Comment by: Chris C.
'General Peckem liked listening to himself talk, liked most of all listening to himself talk about himself.'

As a British imbecile, completely unused to the English language; can I ask if Heller's hilarious sentence is guilty of the postulated crime?

Surely the comma has delivered a poetic elegance which the insertion of other words would diminish?
Monday April 20th 2009, 8:59 PM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
I was really glad to see this article. I proofread medical reports and on a very regular basis see an example of this and change it. While I realize the doctor probably dictated it that way, it still annoys me that someone would actually transcribe it that way. For this example which is right on target, I probably would have changed it to read, "She had a headache, she had no signs of impact, there was no bleeding" or "She complained of a headache; however, there were no signs of impact nor was there any bleeding."

At the link, I did wander over to the discussion on "nonplussed." I probably looked up the meaning of the word about 50 years ago and, for some peculiar reason, did not like it. I have never used it. I'm unhappy to admit that my impression over the years probably "evolved" to the belief that it meant something like "unfazed."

This is a truly wonderful website!
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 7:57 AM
Comment by: Paul H. (Southampton United Kingdom)
I disagree with much of the article and believe there is a considered and important use for comma splicing. In my writing (ghost stories) I use the punctuation to convey a sense of breathlessness and heart-pumping delivery. It encourages the reader to race through descriptions with the same truncated thoughts as the protagonist under stress. Nevertheless, a very interesting article.
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Curious Cat (Denver, CO)
In response to Daniel C. about however, accordingly, meanwhile, likewise, therefore, consequently, nonetheless, otherwise, thus, as a result, in fact, on the other hand, for example, etc.:

I used to tell my students that these words think they are conjunctions. (I've heard them called adverbial conjunctions.) Between two independent clauses (sentences), a semicolon precedes the word, and a comma follows it.

Consider, however, moving the word within the second independent clause. The semicolon remains, separating or joining the independent clauses. Now because the word like "however" interrupts the second independent clause, we use a comma before and after it. (See the first sentence in this paragraph.) I prefer these words in positions other than the typical one after the semicolon. The fact that we can move the word around tells us that these words are not true conjunctions.

This is my understanding. Maybe in Great Britain, you discuss these words differently.
Elizabeth "Curious Cat"
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 4:41 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
Curious: Thank you for replying to my query.

I thought you might be interested to know that despite my recent move to the UK, I'm Australian. To be precise I'm from N.S.W. Presently, as when I went to school, grammar is not taught formally in high school there. As a result, to further my writing, I've had to learn further grammar on my own from books (and sites like this).
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 10:39 PM
Comment by: Pamela M. (Ocala, FL)
The use of the conjunction "and" is commonly used at the begining of sentences - is this grammatically correct.

The article is inciteful and useful to some one like me seeking to improve grammar usage.
Sunday June 14th 2009, 12:23 PM
Comment by: CJP (Boulder, CO)
My comments apply to the beginning paragraphs, before the outline of helpful corrections is given.
Fortunately, there are many writing styles and ways to express ourselves. Cussin' can certainly pepper the point. "Effin" was amusing to me because it was cleverly coded. "Damn" and "just bitching" seemed only tired and lazy. It is with constructive intentions that I suggest these authors sidestepped a challenge to write more creatively.
Sunday April 25th 2010, 8:24 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
So, no one has weighed in with a rewrite?
How 'bout
"she had a headache, but no signs of impact, no bleeding"
And as a medical writer, whose mother was an ER nurse, I can't help but wonder. A headache plus no bleeding is probably worse than a post-blunt-trauma headache with copious bleeding. Howsoever, refusing the MRI was probably what killed her.

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