Comma Splices: What are They & Should You Fix Them?
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Many writers feel stumped when it comes to commas—and for good reason. Where to use a comma within a sentence can be complex and often even subjective.
This also means comma splices happen all the time.
The question is, though: are they okay to use or are they a serious error you should fix?
The answer? It depends (don’t you love it when that happens?).
Below I’ve explained what a comma splice is, when it’s okay to use it, and how you can fix it when you shouldn’t use it.
What is a comma splice?
A comma splice means that two independent clauses are separated by a comma.
In other words, the sentence comprises two complete sentences, but these sentences are only separated by a comma.
She was beautiful, she knew it.
The above sentence consists of two complete sentences (independent clauses):
She was beautiful.
She knew it.
And when those two sentences are only separated by a comma, it’s called a comma splice.
Why are comma splices an issue?
You might wonder what the big deal is. Why should we care about comma splices at all? Does it really matter whether we use a comma or a different type of punctuation?
The answer is: yes; it matters.
As readers, whenever we see a comma that doesn’t have a conjunction (like “and,” “but,” or “although”), we believe we’re reading a list.
In other words, it determines the flow of our reading; we’re reading it expecting more to come.
When there’s no more item on the list, it stands out to us as readers. We notice it, even if we don’t consciously understand why. And when we think it looks off, it’ll pull us out of the writing.
Can you use a comma splice in fiction?
Is it ever okay to use a comma splice, though?
It is. Especially in fiction.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Here you can see the comma splice is used to the extreme. But it’s used with purpose.
It dictates the rhythm and the narrative.
More importantly, it fits instantly with the point Dickens is trying to make. It’s a tale of two cities in a tumultuous period; everything has to be looked at in comparison.
Consider if an editor decided that this was wrong and would’ve edited out the comma splices. You’d be left with something like:
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity. …” And so on.
Do you see how that instantly changes the rhythm? That opening wouldn’t have had the same impact.
That’s because the comma indicates the closest relationship. Thus, changing it changes the way we read the sentence.
Now, if Dickens had continued writing with this many comma splices, the reader would’ve likely become sick of it at some point. As with everything, you don’t want to overdo it.
You only want to use this if it makes sense. Does the comma splice introduce the right type of emphasis? Does it convey the right type of mood?
A comma splice can also work well within dialogue and interiority (a character’s thoughts). This is because it can feel and sound closer to actual speech.
Can you use a comma splice in nonfiction?
It’s a different story looking at nonfiction, depending on the type of nonfiction you write.
If, for instance, you’re writing more informal nonfiction, like a self-help book or a memoir, you can use the occasional comma splice in the same way you would use it in fiction. (Always keep in mind that it should serve a purpose.)
However, in formal and academic writing, a comma splice is a big no-no. Don’t use it.
So, depending on the type of tone you want for your book, you can use a comma splice in nonfiction as well. Make sure it fits with the type of audience you’re writing for, though. If you’re writing for a more academic audience, it’s better to leave the comma splices out of it. Otherwise, your readers might view it as an error instead of something that’s done on purpose.
How do you fix a comma splice?
You’ve found a comma splice in your writing. It’s not there for any purpose other than that you made an error.
So, how do you fix it?
There are several ways you can fix a comma splice:
Change it into a semicolon. Love them or hate them (I love them), but using a semicolon is a quick fix. Only use these when the sentences are related to each other, as in the example above: She was beautiful; she knew it. Another option is using an em dash if that’s more your style (She was beautiful—she knew it).
Add a conjunction. Another easy fix is adding a conjunction. Most commonly, you’d use “and,” “but,” or “so.” For instance: She was beautiful, and she knew it.
Split up the sentences. Your other option is to make the one sentence into two separate sentences. Then you’d get: She was beautiful. She knew it.
As you can see, fixing a comma splice is relatively easy. Ask yourself which of these fixes would give you the desired effect.
Separating the sentences would be the harshest break between the sentences, whereas a semicolon would be the softest break.
Time to find those comma splices
Now that you know what a comma splice is, you can go through your manuscript and hunt them down.
When you find one, ask yourself: does it have a particular purpose? Do I want this kind of emphasis on this sentence?
If you don’t want the comma splice there, consider which of the fixes would best fit with your sentences.
Need a little help to decide whether your comma splices are out of control? You can always hire a copyeditor to do the work for you. Feel free to reach out to me with a sample, and I’ll have a look to see if I can help.