Comma Splices

Written by Addicted to Edward

Many authors struggle with the correct usage of commas, and it’s no surprise. Commas are tricky! There are so many rules about them, not to mention the exceptions, and some aren’t even really rules because they are optional.

As a beta, one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen authors make with commas is the comma splice. Fortunately, comma splices are very easy to recognize and fix.

What is a Comma Splice?

A comma splice is a type of run-on sentence that is actually two independent clauses joined together with a comma without a coordinating conjunction.

Okay…but what does that mean in plain English?

It means you put two complete sentences together with a comma and didn’t include an appropriate joining word. An “appropriate joining word” is one of the FANBOYS – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

Here are some examples of comma splices:

Nessie, you should go back to the cottage and go to bed, it’s getting late.

My heart skipped a beat, I knew that voice better than my own.

A chill ran down my spine, I began to tremble again.

I don’t know why you’re still obsessed with him, get over it already.

These are not comma splices:

I didn’t want to see his face, but he wasn’t going to let me just walk away.

If you won’t go home, please just stay away from the forest

In this first example, the coordinating conjunction “but” is used to join the two independent clauses. In the second example, the highlighted words before the comma are a dependent clause, not an independent clause. “If you won’t go home” can’t stand on its own as a complete thought. The reader will be left wondering what will happen if the character won’t go home.

How Do I Fix a Comma Splice?

There are three simple ways to fix a comma splice:

1. Change the comma to a period:

Nessie, you should go back to the cottage and go to bed, it’s getting late.

becomes

Nessie, you should go back to the cottage and go to bed. It’s getting late.

2. Change the comma to a semi-colon:

My heart skipped a beat, I knew that voice better than my own.

becomes

My heart skipped a beat; I knew that voice better than my own.

3. Insert a coordinating conjunction (one of the FANBOYS) after the comma, creating a compound sentence.

A chill ran down my spine, I began to tremble again.

becomes

A chill ran down my spine, and I began to tremble again.

How Do I Know Which Method to Use to Fix a Comma Splice?

Any of the three methods for fixing comma splices will work in any sentence, theoretically. There are reasons – readability and style, for example – why one method works best or not at all in a given instance.

Consider the third method, adding a coordinating conjunction. In some cases, adding one of the FANBOYS just doesn’t make any sense. For example:

The state-of-the-art stereo system is already blasting away, Emmett knows how lucky he is to have such cool parents.

Because these two sentences aren’t really related, using a coordinating conjunction here just wouldn’t sound right.

The second method, using a semi-colon, is generally used when the two sentences are closely related. That’s why it works in this example:

My heart skipped a beat; I knew that voice better than my own.

Her heart is skipping a beat because she recognizes the voice.

The first method, using a period and creating two sentences, will always work, but sometimes it creates choppy sentences. Sometimes it just flows better to use a coordinating conjunction or a semi-colon. It’s a judgment call. Sometimes you just have to try all three methods and read the sentences aloud to figure out which one works best. For example:

A chill ran down my spine, I began to tremble again.

Changing the comma to a period works, but the sentences are short and choppy. Adding a coordinating conjunction flows better:

A chill ran down my spine, and I began to tremble again.

How Do I Spot Comma Splices in My Writing?

Write first and edit later. In other words, don’t stop as you’re writing each sentence and wonder, “Did I just make a comma splice?” Because comma splices are so easy to fix, look for them on one of your final passes over your writing, when you’re just polishing rather than making major changes.

Written all out in a step-by-step form like this make it seem like a long process, but I assure you it really isn’t. As you read your story, be on the lookout for sentences with commas. For each sentence with at least one comma:

  1. Is there a coordinating conjunction (one of the FANBOYS) immediately following the comma? If yes, this is not a comma splice. Move along!
  2. Pretend the comma is a period, creating two sentences.
  3. Look at the first sentence. Is it a complete sentence? Can it stand on its own? Is it a complete idea or is the reader left wondering, “And then what?”
  4. Look at the second sentence. Is it a complete sentence? Can it stand on its own? Is it a complete idea or is the reader left wondering, “And then what?”
  5. If both are complete sentences, you have a comma splice. Use one of the three methods to correct it.

Repeat these steps for each comma in the sentence.

Very quickly, you’ll realize there are some situations for which you don’t need to go through this whole process. Commas used in dialogue punctuation, for example. Another instance is when commas are used for direct address such as in the sentence:

I really admire that about you, Jasper.

It wouldn’t be the English language if there weren’t some exceptions or tricky situations. Keep these in mind:

1. Use a comma to separate a statement from a question, even though they are both complete sentences. For example:

I said I was, didn’t I?

2. Some complete sentences have an implied subject, which can make them look like incomplete sentences at first glance. This is often the case with commands. For example:

I don’t know why you’re still obsessed with him, get over it already.

“Get over it already” is a complete sentence. The subject is the implied “you.”

3. This isn’t really an exception, but I thought I’d point it out because sentences with the hidden “that” always trip me up. Consider this example:

My heart is pounding so hard I wonder if he can hear it.

Inserting a comma after “hard” would create a comma splice, and yet I always want to put one in. The sentence could also be written this way:

My heart is pounding so hard that I wonder if he can hear it.

A comma does not belong in this sentence, and the “that” is optional.

Glossary

Comma splice – two complete sentences that are joined with a comma without one of these words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

Compound sentence –a sentence that contains two or more independent clauses. One way to create a compound sentence is to join the independent clauses with a comma and coordinating conjunction.

Coordinating conjunction – words that join two or more sentences. Remember them by thinking of FANBOYS – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

Dependent clause – a phrase that is not a complete sentence. It leaves the reader wondering, “And then what?”

Independent clause – a complete sentence. It can stand on its own as a complete thought. It has a subject and a verb.

References/More Information

Grammar Girl

Wikipedia

Grammar Book

All writing examples in this article came from my own stories: Golden Hour (unpublished), Torn in Two, Mistletoe Confessions, and Body and Soul.

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