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Are comma splices becoming grammatically acceptable?
February 1, 2014 10:10 AM   Subscribe

I am seeing comma splices used with increasing frequency, both in writing I edit at work and on various websites. They seem particularly common when the second phrase begins with the word "however." I know that some words and constructions become correct by usage over time. Are comma splices becoming acceptable? Editors, do you remove them when you find them, or let them stand?

As an example, I frequently see constructions like this: "I wanted to drive to the mall, however the snow and ice prevented me from leaving the house." Correct or incorrect?
posted by southern_sky to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Incorrect, however I find myself doing it too and I've been writing professionally since 1989. From what I can tell, it seems to have originated as a Britishism and spread to the States via the Internet.
posted by kindall at 10:14 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's that comma splices are becoming more acceptable, but people are not precisely clear on the differences in usage between conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs.
posted by Sequence at 10:30 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


I think that in the age of the Internet we see a lot more crappy writing than we used to. Anecdotally, as I get older I have simply forgotten a lot of the rules.
posted by rhizome at 10:35 AM on February 1 [5 favorites]


I suspect this is an illusion. I teach English and handle all sorts of different printed materials. There's no increase that I can observe. (I do notice a ... hmm ... different approach to comma usage in British English, though, so maybe you've been reading more British English lately. I don't know where you're from.)

"I wanted to drive to the mall, however the snow and ice prevented me from leaving the house." This sentence is incorrectly punctuated for Standard American English. It should be either

"I wanted to drive to the mall; however, the snow and ice prevented me from leaving the house." (Some people don't seem comfortable using semicolons. I note that many of my international students have never been shown how.)

or

"I wanted to drive to the mall. However, the snow and ice prevented me from leaving the house." (Of course, some folks think you must not start a sentence with "however." They are welcome to their opinions. Conventional formal usage accepts this style regardless of their peeves.)
posted by wintersweet at 10:42 AM on February 1 [11 favorites]


We must be vigilant against creeping poor grammar. Hold the line. Do not accept these poorly constructed sentences. However, know that I think it comes from writing on mobile devices.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:42 AM on February 1 [8 favorites]


we see a lot more crappy writing

Yes, or hastier, more casual writing. I have mixed feelings about the comma splice. Sometimes it seems to express what I'm trying to say in the best approximation to how I would speak it. E.g., "I'm running late, can you pick up some milk?" could be corrected with a semi-colon or with a conjunction (so), but the one puts a stronger separation between the two clauses, and the other feels slightly more formal.

Still, I'm not a fan of that casual usage bleeding over into formal writing.
posted by torticat at 10:46 AM on February 1


Would someone be willing to elaborate about the comments on British English and commas made above?
posted by ClaireBear at 10:54 AM on February 1


That sentence is incorrect. Semi-colons exist exactly for that construction.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:02 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]


I see comma splices more and more in my work these days. I always take them out; they make sentences feel like breathless run-ons. The example up top is definitely a comma splice, and I would change it in a heartbeat.

Don't get me started on the growth of problems with basic spelling and grammar. In a profession where my writers ought to be experts due to the very nature of their jobs, I see appalling amounts of grade school errors like confusing to/too or then/than.

I blame autocorrect and spell check. Thanks, Microsoft and Apple.
posted by Old Man McKay at 11:06 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Comma slices drive me berserk, I'm a copy editor for fiction, I see them all the time, last night I had to stop reading a book because all the splices were just ruining it for me, you're not wrong, but also I wouldn't worry too much about seeing them on random websites, but in any kind of published or formal writing they're completely wrong, OMG I just want to scream.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:07 AM on February 1 [15 favorites]


The word "however" is the issue here. Substitute "but" and it is no longer a comma splice.
The comma splice would be: "I wanted to drive to the mall, the snow and ice prevented me from leaving the house."
Either a semicolon or the comma before "but" solves that.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:11 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


"I'm running late, can you pick up some milk?" could be corrected with a semi-colon or with a conjunction (so), but the one puts a stronger separation between the two clauses, and the other feels slightly more formal.

Surely you correct this by replacing the comma with a period.

"I'm running late. Can you pick up some milk?"

If I really wanted to cram those two clauses into one sentence, I might do this, which makes the explicit connection between the two thoughts, but I don't think it's any more clear than the period above.

"I'm running late — can you pick up some milk?"

I like the dash better than the semicolon because the dash conveys a connection between the clauses, and the semicolon seems to convey more of a separation, but that may be a matter of personal taste. In practice, I try to avoid either one of them, but opt for the dash when I have a choice since I find it friendlier.

Grammarians might find that dash incorrect, I'm not sure. To me, it's at least better than the comma splice, which cries out "Amateur hour!" whenever I spot it.
posted by Mothlight at 11:22 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Anecdotally, I don't remember comma splices ever being taught when I was in school. Examples of run-on sentences were always "I went to the park it was fun," never "I went to the park, it was fun." And I remember a lot of my classmates overusing commas and never using semicolons; I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of otherwise-fine writers never mastered the rules for either.

I see comma splices all the time in work emails; I use semicolons, but have never seen one in any emails from colleagues or clients. I will sometimes use comma splices if I'm writing in a more conversational style. (I can't think of any examples right now, but I know I do it.)

And I agree with rhizome that you're likely noticing this a lot because just about anyone can write something on the internet, and only a tiny fraction of that writing is edited, and comma splices are a common error. Additionally, a lot of websites have an informal style, so few people are worrying about comma splices in a story about fifty beagles who just cannot even.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:27 AM on February 1


Grammarians might find that dash incorrect, I'm not sure.

Not to pick on Mothlight, but this construction suggests to me that the comma splice is prevalent even among those who think consciously about grammar. The students in my first- and second-year writing classes seem to relish connecting independent clauses with just a comma.
posted by monkeymonkey at 11:33 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


> Editors, do you remove them when you find them, or let them stand?

I (a professional editor) remove them because they are officially "incorrect" and it is my job to enforce the rules. That said, the rules are often absurd, especially when it comes to colloquial usage or reported speech. "I'm running late, can you pick up some milk?" (to quote torticat) is an excellent example of a sentence where only a so-called comma splice accurately represents the spoken form; neither of Mothlight's suggested replacements (period or dash) does so. If I were editing a work of fiction, I would leave such punctuation alone; unfortunately, I have not had that opportunity, and there is no place for informality in the academic works I get sent.

As for "increasing frequency," no, you and many of the people in this thread are experiencing the frequency illusion; wintersweet is correct that people have always tended to write like this (and get slapped down for it by pedants/teachers).
posted by languagehat at 11:34 AM on February 1 [10 favorites]


When "however" is used as a conjunction, it requires a comma following it, and either a semicolon or comma before it, if it is not at the start of the sentence. Your example would be fixed by inserting a comma after "however".
posted by w0mbat at 11:51 AM on February 1


For what it's worth, I'm a proofreader/copyeditor and I generally fix 'em. The exception is when I'm proofing a novel and they're endemic to the point that they're effectively a stylistic choice (related to what languagehat says above about the milk sentence's colloquial feel).

I also love semicolons and use them in, like, 2-sentence emails, so may be biased.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:02 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


I'm sure comma splices are a valid stylistic choice in some situations, but I think the vast majority of them happen by accident, not design. For what it's worth, I took an advanced grammar/prose style course last year, and my professor, despite teaching the class in very unprescriptive fashion (i.e. know the rules/terminology so that you can make informed stylistic choices, know when and why it's useful to break convention) seemed to really loathe comma splices.
posted by Gymnopedist at 12:14 PM on February 1


I always correct them when I find them in copy I'm proofreading.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:27 PM on February 1


Consider the increasingly common perception that a period is a sign of anger. I think young people are less willing to use the so-called correct construction "I wanted to drive to the mall. However, the snow and ice prevented me from leaving the house." because the "angry" connotations of a period color the meaning of the sentences.
posted by telegraph at 12:46 PM on February 1 [7 favorites]


In high school I was pretty thoroughly trained not to use them. When I started to hang out online more, I noticed comma splices in the comments of intelligent people whose writing style and ideas I generally admired. And then I began using them too. It's weird.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:13 PM on February 1


> my professor, despite teaching the class in very unprescriptive fashion [...] seemed to really loathe comma splices.

Of course, many people do. Because:

> In high school I was pretty thoroughly trained not to use them.

There are some remnants of prescriptivism that are inculcated so thoroughly that it's hard to shake them off. Kudos to needs more cowbell for doing so!
posted by languagehat at 1:58 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Would someone be willing to elaborate about the comments on British English and commas made above?

British proofreader here. No matter which side of the Atlantic you look at it from, that comma isn't right and I'd mark it up to a semicolon. However, there's a very good chance that a much more offensive grammar crime will come along soon after.
posted by peteyjlawson at 3:25 PM on February 1 [4 favorites]


I use comma splices in online gibble-gabble all the time. In anything formal or even just work-related, no.
posted by jfuller at 4:32 PM on February 1


Editor here. There's no question your example is incorrect, and earlier comments have explained how to fix it (except for the advice to insert commas before and after 'however,' which doesn't fix anything).
Yes, it's true that usage changes language. But I'm not aware of anybody in the field arguing that this particular error has reached a tipping point. If one of our writers used a comma splice I'd correct it, and I'd also be astonished that he/she didn't know better. That reflects our own standards in our industry, but it also points to the more interesting question, at least for me: When is formal correctness not so important?
Fiction, clearly, has a claim to immunity. So does social media -- who cares if the little truants mangle language on their phones? But in business and academe, I'd careful to avoid such obvious and tired errors.
posted by LonnieK at 4:43 PM on February 1


It is still not standard in edited American English, but it seems to me to have become way more common in the last few years, at least on the internet. You'd need to do a proper survey to be sure. I don't know about any influence of British English, but this is a standard, accepted form in French, isn't it? I don't think there would be any influence from that direction but it's interesting to note the convergence (if I'm right about that - I have a poor grasp of French grammar).
posted by chinston at 5:56 PM on February 1


I don't think it's considered correct in British English, either.
posted by galaksit at 6:09 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Although English was my first language I got all of my primary and secondary education in French schools. I use commas a lot, wherever they make sense to me, wherever they seem necessary for a sensible flow. I probably internalized whatever rules my first French maitresses taught me.
posted by mareli at 7:41 PM on February 1


I taught (British) English for years. The rules regarding the comma splice are the same as in American English.
posted by Salamander at 8:17 PM on February 1


Thank you all for the answers, especially to those of you who reassured me that comma splices are as incorrect as they have always been. Even this very website indicates, "You're not logged in, login here." This always makes me cringe and reach for my metaphorical red pen; it helps to know I'm not alone!

And then there was the young coworker of mine who sent me an email stating, "Thanks for your helpful edits to my brief, I hate comma splices too."

At work, the worst offenders are people who came of age writing on the Internet, so maybe their informal styles are bleeding over into professional work. Telegraph's reminder that periods are increasingly perceived as imparting an angry tone was very helpful.
posted by southern_sky at 6:05 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


> I'd careful to avoid such obvious and tired errors.

Why do you feel the need to put the boot in that way? It's officially incorrect, nobody denies that; why the insistence that it's an "obvious and tired error"? It's a thing that people write because it accurately represents how they talk, which is generally considered a good thing. Even you admit that "Fiction, clearly, has a claim to immunity," which is apparently your way of saying that since it it accurately represents how people talk, it wouldn't make sense to ban it in fiction. But then why exactly is it an "obvious and tired error"? Try not to let these arbitrary prescriptions become divine commandments.

> especially to those of you who reassured me that comma splices are as incorrect as they have always been.

By which you mean "those of you who confirmed my initial prejudice." There is nothing "incorrect" about it except that various manuals say it's a Bad Thing. In most areas of life, MeFites tend to skew anti-authority; I'm not sure why that goes out the window when it comes to language.
posted by languagehat at 10:14 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


> In most areas of life, MeFites tend to skew anti-authority; I'm not sure why that goes out
> the window when it comes to language.

Concern, no doubt, that they might be taken for someone who doesn't know any better. Like folks who will state for the record that it's wrong to judge others by their clothing but would not themselves be caught dead in pink plastic Crocs (the comma splice of footwear.)
posted by jfuller at 1:04 PM on February 2 [1 favorite]


That whole thing the youngsters are using about periods being unfriendly, they just use commas and run on and on, then they confuse the issue by putting in a few dashes--its the kind of thing that makes me want to get in there faces

Pfft. Kids these days.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:39 PM on February 2


"[The comma splice] is a thing that people write because it accurately represents how they talk, which is generally considered a good thing."
I acknowledged that yes, in some circles -- teen talk, texting, etc -- 'writing how you talk' is fine. But in business, science, law, and many other disciplines, it's not considered a good thing at all.
That's because these endeavors require precision, careful attention to meaning, and clarity. Most of us don't parse these things out before we speak, but we consider them carefully when we write.
You ask why the error is obvious and tired. It's obvious because it so clearly contravenes the rules of grammar, such as they are in our day and age, whether you agree with them or not. It's tired because most people learned not to do it -- how and why -- in 8th grade.
posted by LonnieK at 5:11 PM on February 2


> It's obvious because it so clearly contravenes the rules of grammar

You do not understand what the "rules of grammar" are. I know, you're just going by what you were told by your eighth-grade English teacher, but she was wrong. The standard linguistic grammar of English is The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum; yes, I know, it's ridiculous that it costs $209.98, but you can use Search Inside This Book and you will find zero instances of "splice." It is essential to distinguish between grammar (the fact, for instance, that the past tense of go is went) and style (when to use italics, commas, and the like); the former is a fact of the language (though one that changes over time), the latter is arbitrary, purely a feature of writing, and depends on the whim of whoever compiled a particular style guide or grade-school English text (all of which, by the way, are pretty much worthless). Look, I earn my living as a copyeditor and I have a master's degree in linguistics; I know what I'm talking about and am not just trotting out some hippie-dippy loosey-goosey fantasy. If you don't like that particular use of a comma, by all means avoid it, but don't go around passing on urban legends about "grammar." People need to feel less anxiety about their language, not more.

Look, go read some pre-twentieth-century texts and you will quickly discover that their use of punctuation was completely different than what you're accustomed to. Were they all idiots? Did they simply not understand grammar? No, they were going by different conventions, and that's all these are—conventions. They have nothing to do with logic, grammar, or morality. Try not to take them so much to heart.
posted by languagehat at 5:56 PM on February 2 [3 favorites]


You think 'when to use commas' is solely a matter of style? And the use of commas, and presumably all punctuation, is a matter of whether you 'like' the mark or not? Good Lord.
You advise writers for business or science or legal publications to 'write how people talk'? Do you copyedit their MSs to achieve that?
"People need to feel less anxiety about their language, not more."
OK. So I hire a copyeditor, and he/she says, hey, don't worry, be happy, comma, semi, what's the difference, who can keep all that crap straight anyway?"
How much does a copyeditor like that charge these days?
posted by LonnieK at 7:06 PM on February 2


LonnieK, a copyeditor helps a manuscript meet the standards of a publisher or a particular register (academic thesis or whatever). They are not upholding some kind of immutable holy writ. (For one thing, any given set of standards commonly contradicts another set of standards. There is no agreed-upon set of standards for the entire language, regardless of one's personal beliefs.) Please do a little reading about linguistics.
posted by wintersweet at 7:31 PM on February 2


The standard linguistic grammar of English is The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum; yes, I know, it's ridiculous that it costs $209.98, but you can use Search Inside This Book and you will find zero instances of "splice"

Thank you for pointing me to that authoritative text, languagehat. On page 1742, it addresses "'spliced' or 'run-on' commas," and states that sentences like the one in my example above are "generally...regarded as unacceptable." The discussion of exceptions on the following pages is quite helpful to me.
posted by southern_sky at 8:23 PM on February 2


By my earlier comment about "Britishism" I didn't mean that comma splices are acceptable in British English, merely that it feels very much the same as a lot of British writing I've seen. Right now, The Times' Web site includes the following sentences:

"The Education Secretary has come under fire over his decision not to reappoint the Labour peer Baroness Morgan of Huyton to the post and the Lib Dems are insisting that the David Laws, the Lib Dem schools minister, should have responsibility for finding a replacement."

"But Mr Gove said today that that would not be the case and the process would be overseen by an independent panel."

These are the second and third sentences of the current top story, and they are both missing commas before the conjunction than an American editor would certainly include.

Now maybe I'm imagining that the origin of the current fad for comma splices is British, but it certainly has the same breathless feel. In both cases you have about 50% less pause than you'd expect if you're an American.
posted by kindall at 8:25 AM on February 3


> On page 1742, it addresses "'spliced' or 'run-on' commas," and states that sentences like the one in my example above are "generally...regarded as unacceptable." The discussion of exceptions on the following pages is quite helpful to me.

Excellent, glad I could help! Of course it's inarguable that such examples are "generally ... regarded as unacceptable"; my point is simply that that is an arbitrary attitude that can and will change, not a moral imperative.

> You advise writers for business or science or legal publications to 'write how people talk'? Do you copyedit their MSs to achieve that?

No, as I said before, but I can see you have no interest in anything except huffing and puffing and beating your chest, so I'll let you walk away feeling victorious: congratulations, you win!
posted by languagehat at 9:22 AM on February 3


wintersweet raises a straw man, and knocks it flat. I made clear from the outset that different publications, venues, media have different standards, and I proposed no immutable holy writ or universal standard. Maybe we agree on that. And thanks for the reading suggestion ... linguistics .. sounds interesting!
But languagehat's 'going by the rules' seems pretty reluctant, since the rules are 'absurd.' I can only take that to mean hat would open the floodgates to comma splices if hat made the rules about academic publishing. (And what else -- 'ain't'?) I wouldn't, because, as I said, some areas demand greater precision and clarity than 'writing how we speak' can ever provide.
posted by LonnieK at 4:24 PM on February 3 [1 favorite]


[Folks, prescriptivism vs descriptivism is an interesting debate but not one to have here. Please drop it unless it adds further specific answers to OP's question. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:39 PM on February 3


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