Wednesday, November 11

Writing Basics: Unnatural Pairings—Comma Splices

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When we’re writing and the words are flowing, it’s not uncommon to start smooshing sentences together that don’t actually go together. In our heads we pause, but not stop, so it feels like a comma belongs in that space.

And then we end up with a comma splice.

As you can probably guess from that intro, a comma splice is when we have two independent clauses or complete sentences separated by a comma that shouldn’t be there. This leads to awkward and run-on sentences, and drives poor copy editors crazy.

For example:
Bob threw his duffel bag into the back of the truck, it was too dirty for the front seat.
These two pieces are their own sentences.
Bob threw his duffel bag into the back of the truck.
It was too dirty for the front seat.
Both pieces can stand on their own, so the comma is unnecessary. But the pieces do go together from conceptually, and our ears tells us we should keep them as once sentence. The whole reason Bob is throwing the bag in the back is because it’s too dirty.

Let's look at a few options to fix the splice and get across the idea behind it:
Bob threw his duffel bag into the back of the truck—it was too dirty for the front seat.
An em dash separates the idea into its own thought, but still connects it to the previous sentence. A nice choice if we want the second clause to feel like an aside or emphasized thought. This will make it stand out a little, which might be just want we want so readers remember it.

(Here's more on em dashes)
Bob threw his duffel bag into the back of the truck; it was too dirty for the front seat.
A semi-colon separates the ideas, but also still connects them. A good choice if the second clause is just additional information, but we don’t want to draw attention to it. This could be a good way to slip in clues or information we want the reader to have, but not really notice right now.
Bob threw his too-dirty-for-the-front-seat duffel bag into the back of the truck.
A larger edit changes the sentence entirely to eliminate the second clause. This is a good choice if we just don’t like any other options and want the sentence to stand on its own. It's also a nice way of getting some character voice into the sentence.
Bob threw his duffel bag into the back of the truck, for it was too dirty for the front seat. Or

Bob threw his duffel bag into the back of the truck since it was too dirty for the front seat.Or
Since it was too dirty for the front seat, Bob threw his duffel bag into the back of the truck.
A slight edit to add a conjunction (for) or a subordinate conjunction (since) changes the nature of the sentence and turns the second clause into an explanation. The last example adds an introductory clause (since it was too dirty...) that does the same thing. Be wary of these structures, however, as they can make the sentence feel told, even though it’s grammatically correct.

Comma splices are fairly common (I shudder to think how many I fix every editing pass), especially if we’re striving for a rhythmic, literary feel to our writing. There’s something flow-y about moving from one thought to the next without a full stop, and too many commas in a row can be a red flag that the paragraph is getting a little too flowery. These are areas that probably need tweaking.

It can take time to train our eyes and ears to spot our comma splices, but once we do, it’s easy to avoid them. I’ve found the simplest fixes are usually either em dashes or periods. Just use your writer’s ear and adjust however sounds best to you.

Be kind to your copy editors. Fix your comma splices in your final polish.

How often to you splice those commas? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Nice post. I always have comma issues!

    1. Thanks! I always end up changing a bunch each draft. I often add more than I need and change my mind on a re-read. I must pause a lot during a first draft! (grin)

  2. Nice post, Janice. It's interesting to break down sentences like this and take a look at the different ways they can be punctuated.

    1. Thanks! It was harder to write bad sentences than you'd think. :) Fun, but tricky.

  3. Nice post. I know I tend toward too many commas. I stick them in when I need to pause and think, and sometimes I forget to take them out again!

    1. Me, too, especially in internalization for some reason.

  4. Great post. Me and commas -- oi!!

    1. Thanks! At least they're easy to fix in most cases :)