Style Corner: The Comma Splice

Welcome to my new, shorter blog, Style Corner.

As the name suggests it will focus mainly on style and usage and not on grammar; based on the idea that most contentious topics in business writing, and writing more generally, are not actually to do with grammar.

There are of course rules of grammar in English but not as many as people think; and to native English speakers and writers they are just that: native, innate, internal. To non-native English speakers and writers they have to be learned, yes, but the playing field is more level than you might imagine.

Native English speakers, especially those of a certain age and educational cohort, are just as likely as non-native speakers to be confused about what is ‘correct’ or not; and about whether the ‘correctness’ of something is a grammatical matter or a matter of usage and style.

Style Corner is intended to clarify some of the uncertainty.

Exceptionally, though, the first topic is actually about a grammatical matter: the comma splice.

Simply put this means using a comma to divide (splice) two sentences which are valid sentences in their own right, the comma after ‘right’ just there is a good example.

That preceding sentence is not a sentence at all. It is two sentences divided by a comma. The first one has the subject ‘this’ and the verb ‘means’. The second has the subject ‘the comma’ and the verb ‘is’.

Another simple example is as follows. Mark attended the class, it wasn’t very good.

Most grammarians, unless they are extremely liberal, will contend that the comma splice is incorrect, grammatically. It breaks basic laws of English syntax, some of which relate to sentence structure.

Perhaps more important in business writing it sends a signal to your reader: that your writing is not as professional or refined as it could be. Some readers, whether sticklers (pedants) or not, will judge you adversely if you use a comma splice. You risk distracting them, disengaging them, or, worse, annoying them.

In simple terms, don’t do it. There are many elegant and eloquent ways of avoiding the comma splice.

  1. You can use short sentences ending with a full stop.
  2. You can use a semicolon to signify the half breath that you wanted to use a comma to signify; this is quite a good illustration.
  3. If there is a clear logical relationship between the ‘spliced’ sentences a colon would work: an example would be a list, or a sentence like this with explanatory detail in the second part.
  4. Or you can use a simple dash – this example does exactly that.

An important lesson is to do with reviewing and checking your own work carefully and rigorously, looking out for those annoying comma splices. It is extremely easy to fall into the habit of using them especially in longer sentences; I nearly used one myself right there (after ‘sentences’) but caught it in my check.