Sure. But it’s my job. And as a fellow teacher once remarked, “Reading some of them is like getting hit in the forehead with a hammer with each sentence.” Yes, and again, that’s what we’re paid for. And I get to sit on my couch and listen to the Beatles while I grade.
Comma splices are the bane of my existence. Actually they’re how I justify my existence. I tell myself, I’m giving them practice writing and teaching them that comma splices are bad. Showing them all the good punctuation options. Not to mention cluing a few of them to the utter ignominy of the run-on.
I remember so vividly my own dawning awareness of original sin, as an undergraduate, when a professor circled my comma splice. In my memory it’s actually in a blue book—though why even an English professor would bother to correct a comma splice in a handwritten exam flummoxes me. “Don’t use comma splices,” he wrote. I marched right up and asked him what that meant. He explained that a comma wasn’t sufficient to join two independent clauses.
Right! I was studying writing on my own, so I saw it right quick. Today comma splices sometimes bother me even when a professional writer uses them intentionally. Or even when I do. Except when the clauses are real short—but I take note of them. I can’t help it. Okay, buddy. I guess so. Might’ve used a nice semicolon there, though. And if it’s mine, I usually change it. Whereas I love sentence fragments. Usually.
Memoirist Mark Richard’s use of comma splicesHere’s a comma splice from a skillful writer, Mark Richard, from his memoir House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home:
Most of them have been up all night tying tobacco sticks, their hands are stained black with nicotine.
Now, I’d cut the “are” in the second clause so that it becomes a dependent clause and the comma correct. Thing is, he may have wanted the strength of “are”—and no semicolon, though he uses them elsewhere. So there you are, a splice. Yes, it works. I don’t favor it.
House of Prayer No. 2 is written with a very unusual point of view for a memoir: it starts in third person and switches to second. Here is another of Richard’s spliced sentences, which also showcases his use of second person and present tense:
At home the Christmas tree is up, your mother cooks shrimp Creole for you.
This one bothers me more, since the two clauses have different subjects. The theory I’m working on for why Richard uses the occasional splice is that they’re a way of strengthening the second-person voice of his young narrator (himself). I say that partly because there’s nary a dash in the whole book. Dashes would heighten the sense of the author at his desk, manipulating the story, I believe.
As it is, however, Richard seems to hover outside his narrative in some “now” beyond the story, even though he uses present tense (which very much emphasizes the action “then”); this is because although second-person point of view would seem to distance him from the narrative, in an odd way it emphasizes that there’s an author behind the scenes. Plus, he sometimes writes from others’ points of view, as when he imagines his father’s, and that emphasizes the writer at work and his shaping, retrospective view.
While few beginning writers fall into complex sentence patterns, subordinate clauses and the like, many naturally pitch headlong into comma splices. Maybe humans think or talk that way. I’ve heard comma splices are accepted in German prose. I have two classes of freshmen reading Richard’s exciting memoir, but none will notice his splices unless I point them out. So I don’t think it will worsen the fault. In fact, the more a student has read the less likely he is to splice and the faster he will correct the fault once it’s flagged.
My wife, an administrator, chastises me for my obsession with a minor error that hardly hurts meaning.
Then she teaches her one freshman seminar a year. And starts complaining about comma splices.
Examples of options for fixing comma splices
During my annual academic-year battle against the humble comma splice, I show students this example:
The brown dog barked, the black cat ran.
Now, yes, it works, this sentence—it’s mine. Theirs are worse. And where will it end if I cave? Despite my fixation, I sometimes pause before I circle the splice, because most students barely use commas as it is.
“That’s a comma splice,” I say, and explain, as it was told to me so long ago. I’ve also developed a page-long sheet, which shows the sinner all the great punctuation he’s leaving on the ground.
The options include:
The brown dog barked; the black cat ran.
The brown dog barked—the black cat ran.
The brown dog barked, and the black cat ran.
“See the differences in tone?” I say. “Even in shades of meaning? Isn’t that neat? All the options?”
Every so often, by doing this, I convince a kid that commas are bad. He cuts every comma he can. He writes:
The brown dog barked the black cat ran.
And just like that, I’ve turned a mere comma splicer into a run-on fiend. Someone who doesn’t even tap his brakes at the intersection but who shoots his car right through. Someone who bloodies his reader’s nose as he lurches him from one clause and smashes him into another.
I’m on record elsewhere with my despair. A biologist friend who teaches, and who calls comma splices “comma faults,” once tried to comfort me with this nugget: “You can’t hurt the good ones, and you can’t help the bad ones.”
A bitter little pill, that one. But I’ll take it. As the Beatles’ rivals sang, “It’s only rock and roll.” (And their music pretty much was only that, good as it was—sorry Stones fans.)
When I retire from teaching in a few years, surely I won’t miss my foe the comma splice. But I’ll sure miss grading along with the Beatles.
There’s a judicious post at Sentence first about comma splices.