I’ve been noticing a lot of aspersions being cast against against the comma splice recently. A quick sampling:
“The dreaded comma splice rears its ugly head again.”
“Splices are the worst, namely because there are probably over a hundred other ways to combine the clauses correctly”*
“My senior English teacher marked down any paper with even a single comma splice by two letter grades [… It] gave me a terror-loathing of comma splices that has never left me.”
A comma splice, also known more judgmentally as a comma fault, error, or blunder, occurs when a writer joins two independent clauses with only a comma. One might write, for instance:
(1) I'm going to the store, I'll be back soon.
Sure, there are lots of other ways to join the clauses above (I suspect less than 100), such as a semi-colon, a dash, or a comma with a conjunction. The trouble is that each of the options carries with it a certain feel: the semicolon feels a bit formal, the dash a bit distant, the conjunction a bit unnecessary. The comma splice is light and airy, a gentle joining that fits the breezy style I wanted in that sentence.
But alas, that breeziness is abhorred by many English users, whether due to fear of punishment or their personal preferences. I can see where they're coming from, and surely you can too. Comma splices are often misused; the simplicity of their splice rarely sounds good with bulky clauses or ones that don't have an obvious connection. Continually using comma splices can make your writing sound like a bouquet of run-ons, and there's always the danger of confusion in using comma splices with clauses that look like lists.
But there's nothing inherently wrong, dreadful, or ungrammatical about a comma splice. In fact, if there's anything bad to be said about the comma splice, it's that it's old-fashioned.
Comma splices were unexceptional in the 18th century; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage offers examples from Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Benjamin Franklin. You might object that punctuation was in flux in those days. It’s a fair point, although I could rejoin that punctuation remains in flux through the present day. But also, we find that even as the punctuation system of English came together in the 19th century, comma splices remained common in letters. In fact, the earliest complaint against the comma splice found by the MWDEU staff only dates back to 1917.
That’s the historical side. So what about the informality? That 19th century shift mentioned above is an early indication of the emerging informality of the splice; its continued appearances in letters but drop-off in published works suggests a growing opinion that it was informal. Stan Carey’s post on comma splices serves in part as a repository for modern splices, and most of his examples feel informal as well.**
So what caused the change in perception? The MWDEU offers a potential explanation that I find reasonable: the very idea of the comma splice is based on the brief pauses in speech that have no equivalent in formal writing. Older English punctuation systems were more a system of marking how long of pauses would be used if the passage were spoken than the mostly-semantic/syntactic punctuation system we now have. Informal writing also tends to be punctuated more like speech; many of the punctuation choices I make in writing this blog, for instance, are motivated by how I’d say what I’ve written. Formal writing in the modern English punctuation system asks for more explanatory punctuation, and so the comma splice fell by its wayside. Sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, though I don’t know of a good way to test it.
And that brings up the crux of why comma splices are demonized. They are informal, which means that virtually all style guides will be against them. (An aside: why are there no style guides for informal writing? I’d say it’s because it’s easy and obvious to write informally, but looking at how people write emails and comments and blogs, it certainly seems a lot of people could use guidance in translating from the voice in their heads to words on a screen.)
Of course, it’s fair for style guides to oppose informal things, as far as it goes. The problem is that style guides tend to do a poor job of saying “you only need to worry about this in formal writing”, and their readers do an even worse job at stopping themselves from applying any piddling rule from their preferred stylebook to the whole of English.
Speaking of which: E. B. White, he of Strunk & White and The Elements of Style, illustrates the need to deviate from style guides in informal situations. The fifth Elementary Rule of Usage in their book is Do not join independent clauses with a comma. In a 1963 letter, White wrote:
“Tell Johnny to read Santayana for a little while, it will improve his sentence structure.”
Now there’s a man who knows not to be pushed around by style guides.
Summary: Comma splices were perfectly normal in 18th century punctuation. Starting the 19th century, as English punctuation codified, they were left somewhat on the outside, possibly due to their close connection to speech. They remain standard for informal writing, especially when short, closely connected clauses are being spliced. There is nothing inherently wrong with a comma splice, although when overused or used by a tin-eared writer, they can sound like run-ons.
*: I’m especially fond of this one, since it sounds like the problem with comma splices is just that there are other options, not that there are better options. I love the ambiguity in the scope of other, and whether it covers “correctly”.
**: Stan also has some good advice on how and when he’d use or avoid comma splices, though our opinions differ a bit.