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Writing Tips: Comma Splices

What is a comma splice?

One of the most common errors that I mark on student papers is the comma splice, which happens when the writer joins two independent clauses – i.e., complete sentences – with only a comma. Like many writing errors, the comma splice was not a term

I recognized before I started teaching English, and I often encounter limited recognition of the term outside of teaching circles. Not even my parents, who have worked as teachers, librarians, and editors, recognized the term when I mentioned it to them.

I suspect, though, that – much like pornography – they would recognize the offense when they saw it, as will many other educated readers.

To be fair, the comma splice is largely a stylistic error and one that I frequently see overlooked in commercial prose, especially in fiction. It sometimes even brings a bit of fluidity and grace to a text, transitioning between two distinct statements with only a slight glissando.

Nevertheless, comma splices more often appear sloppy, making the connection between statements fuzzy and unclear. The fixes for a comma splice are also quite simple to make, so even though it is a minor error it is a good one to work on avoiding.

How do I fix a comma splice?

To fix a comma splice, employ one of the three following techniques:

  • Change the comma-fused sentence into two separate sentences (note: this also works with so-called “run-on” or fused sentences, which are not to be confused with overly long sentences).
  • Change the comma into a semi-colon.
  • Add a conjunction after the comma.

To illustrate, here is an example of a comma splice:

“I was excited to begin working on the essay, I went home and immediately wrote a draft.”

While the comma splice does capture the excitement of the speaker, who simply cannot wait long enough to pause fully between clauses, it violates standard conventions of English.

Removing the comma does not help, as this creates a fused – or “run-on” – sentence, a more egregious error. One should only join independent clauses using the previously mentioned techniques. To illustrate:

  • Convert to two sentences: “I was excited to begin working on the essay. I went home and immediately wrote a draft.”
  • Use a semi-colon: “I was excited to begin working on the essay; I went home and immediately wrote a draft.”
  • Add a conjunction: “I was excited to begin working on the essay, so I went home and immediately wrote a draft.”

Of these three, the latter two are preferable. There is nothing wrong with the first, but it is a bit clunky and boring, without establishing a clear relationship between ideas.

The semi-colon establishes the slightness of the pause between ideas that the comma splice also conveyed, while adhering to conventional standards of English. The conjunction “so” is perhaps a little less poetic, but creates a clear, logical transition between ideas.

Whichever of these to use depends on the context and the purpose of you writing.