Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Comma Splices


The pesky comma splice.

It’s something you don’t typically like to think about. It’s something that your high school English teacher wrote in the margins of so many of your essays, remember?

And it’s also something you should try to avoid in your fiction whenever possible.

What exactly is a comma splice? They’re basically when you join two independent clauses with only a comma. Sentences like these…

I just saw Brandon in the hallway, I hope he likes me.

It was a beautiful mid-summer day, the basketball game went on forever.

In both of these examples, each independent clause makes sense, and there’s some idea of how they connect. The narrator in the first example probably has a crush on Brandon. The narrator in the second example is probably telling us the basketball game went on forever because it was a beautiful day.

But it’s not entirely clear. And almost always, what comma splices do for your readers is confuse them.

So how do you fix comma splices?

There’s not just one way to fix a comma splice. If you have a hundred comma splices in your latest work of fiction, you shouldn’t just fix them all the exact same way. You have to think about rhythm in your sentences. You have to think about intent.

So let’s look at four common ways to fix these examples.

The simplest: change the comma to a period.

I just saw Brandon in the hallway. I hope he likes me.

This is the most obvious way to fix the problem. Separate the two independent clauses with a period, and voila, you have two perfectly fine sentences. When in doubt, this method is probably the one you should go with.

The problematic: change the comma to a semi-colon.

I just saw Brandon in the hallway; I hope he likes me.

This isn’t a terrible idea. Semi-colons are used to link two independent clauses closely related in thought.

The problem is that in fiction writing, semi-colons often look strange on the page. Pick up a book of fiction by you right now, turn to a page, and see if you can find a semi-colon. Probably not, right? They’re allowed in fiction, but sparingly, I would say.

The alternate: add a coordinating conjunction.

I just saw Brandon in the hallway, and I hope he likes me.

Adding a coordinating conjunction basically means adding a single word in the middle of the two independent clauses, such as and, but, or, nor, so, for, or yet. In some cases, this might work the best, although notice it doesn’t really work so great in the example above. It could work if the sentence was, I just saw Brandon in the hallway, and I hope he says hi.

It also would work much better using that second example from before…

It was a beautiful mid-summer day, and the basketball game went on forever.

Still not great, but it definitely makes more sense than the first example.

The ideal: add a subordinating word.

Because it was a beautiful mid-summer day, the basketball game went on forever.

In many cases, adding a subordinating word will be the ideal fix to a comma splice. That example above is, in my mind, the best version of that particular sentence. It clearly tells you why the basketball game went on forever.

A subordinating word is often because, but it can also be while, however, although. Let’s try the other example.

Because I just saw Brandon in the hallway, I hope he likes me.

Doesn’t work, does it? Here’s a case where the simplest example — separating the independent clauses into two sentences — is probably best.

Are comma splices ever acceptable in your writing?

Sure they are. Many of the examples I shared above are particularly useful if you’re writing academic papers, research papers, but fiction and creative non-fiction are entirely different beasts.

You should still try to avoid comma splices, but here are a few reasons why they might be acceptable…

  1. Point-of-View. If you’re writing a young adult fiction novel told from the first-person perspective of a teenager, then comma splices might be okay from time to time. Since that character would write lots of comma splices, having absolutely none of them in the entire novel might look weird. On the other hand, if you’re writing a literary novel in third person omniscient, comma splices should be mostly avoided, since the style of writing under this POV is vastly different.
  2. Rhythm. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the occasional comma splice actually enhances the rhythm and pacing of your writing. Especially in a longer paragraph, merging two independent clauses with a comma instead of a period might enhance the specific rhythm you’re going for in your storytelling.
  3. Short, punchy sentences. Again, here’s another case where comma splices look better. Examples like, Many people like sports, I don’t. Or, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Separating short sentences like these with a period or a semi-colon feels like effort that’s not needed. They roll off the tongue so quickly that the comma splice actually seems fitting in a way.

Overall, be smart when it comes to comma splices.

And being smart means recognizing them in the first place.

If you choose to keep a lot of them in your fiction, be prepared for a literary agent or beta reader or editor to make you go through and fix most of them.

It’s certainly not in your best interest to load up your writing with them and hope you’ll get away with it.

If occasionally a comma splice rolls off your fingertips, fine, don’t worry about it, you can fix it (or not fix it) later.

But do try to avoid them whenever possible. Most of the time, your fiction writing will be all the better for it!

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