Splicing with danger

Last week a comma splice almost got me into trouble at work.

A comma splice is when you link two independent clauses with a comma, creating a run-on sentence. For instance:

  • My holiday in Greece was nice, I’m going to go back next year.

Comma splices are often frowned upon by the people who specialise in frowning upon such things. They argue that these commas should be replaced with full stops or semicolons or have coordinating conjunctions added:

  • My holiday in Greece was nice; I’m going to go back next year.
  • My holiday in Greece was nice. I’m going to go back next year.
  • My holiday in Greece was nice, so I’m going to go back next year.

But the fact is that comma splices are commonly used. They have an informal air to them, but in a lot of contexts that’s OK and most readers won’t bat an eyelid.

Sometimes, though, they can get you into trouble.

I’d been proofreading a brochure and there’d been a bit of back-and-forth between the client, who wanted the word ‘through’ taken out of a sentence, and me, who wanted it kept in. The project manager, very sensibly wanting to draw a line and get the thing off to press, emailed the client:

Just had a chat with Tom about ‘through’ and he kept it in on purpose as he feels it reads better, he’s the editor so when it comes to tone of voice or copy style what he says goes.

She meant that to be a vote of confidence in me (which was nice) and an assertion of our standard working processes. But with the comma splice, it could easily have looked as if she were reporting a bit of arrogant foot-stamping on my part. I wish she’d started a new sentence there.

Luckily, no explosions resulted.

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  • pauldanon  On May 23, 2012 at 7:53 am

    So-called comma-splices may sound informal, but they slow down the reader. We instinctively seek main verbs and thus unconsciously identify sentences. Comma-splices of two sentences obscure meaning, just like other punctuation-failures. Starting sentences with conjunctions faze us, also because we’re seeking main verbs. The way to be informal when joining two sentences is a dash, though some users get carried away (like those folks who over-use ellipses).

  • Nick McGivney (@nmcgivney)  On May 23, 2012 at 9:29 am

    So if I’m understanding you correctly, which risk always adds a certain frisson of uncertainty, you’re saying that her comma splice implies a potential hissy fit, is that right? Sorry, not seeing that at all. Your neurosyntactical transmitters may be overtuned, it seems perfectly blameless to me. But on the other hand, I must warmly thank you for highlighting the fun to be had with comma splicing, this is a total hoot, I’m ending on a quadruple whammy, I don’t remember EVER using it before, thanks again!

    Quintuple whammy.

  • Rita Bailey  On May 23, 2012 at 10:35 am

    I don’t think my neurosyntactical transmitters are overtuned, but that’s exactly how I read the paragraph. In fact, I had to read it a couple of times to try and make it read any differently. I would not only have started a new sentence with “he’s the editor”, I would have made it a new paragraph.

  • Tom  On May 23, 2012 at 10:38 am

    The ambiguity I was worried about was whether “he feels” covered only “it reads better” or everything that followed. Happily, the client knows I’m not a petty megalomaniac, so I guess she was safely biased against the wrong interpretation.

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