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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.**

I really like this splice, as it softens the command.

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.

Most people think of formal language as the ideal form, with less formal versions being a devolved, flawed, or generally worsened form of the formal language. It certainly sounds reasonable; formal language certainly feels harder to acquire and use consistently, for one. As a result, it’s a stance that many people (including me, prior to studying linguistics) take without even thinking about it: obviously, formal language is the language, and informal language is its cheap approximation.

In case I haven’t telegraphed it enough yet, I’d like to argue that this is incorrect. Informal language is not what you use when it isn’t worth the effort to use formal language, and informal language is not a strictly less governed system than formal language.

Since that might be butting up against ingrained opinion, let me start off with an analogy to levels of formality in another domain: fashion. Obviously, formal clothing like suits and ties and dresses can make people look really good for a gala event. But if you’re hoping to play a game of backyard football, they’re terrible, because they restrict your movement, and you’ll be unwilling to join into a dogpile because you’ll never get the blood and mud out. Similar problems arise if you’re working in a factory, doing dentistry, painting — the list goes on. Even just the fact that it’s summer now renders almost all of my formal clothing off-limits, lest I develop heatstroke.

[George Clooney all muddy in "Leatherheads"]

Case in point.

Returning to formal language, we see many of the same points. Formal language can sound nicer than informal in some settings — oratory springs to mind. In other cases, whether or not it sounds nicer, it’s more appropriate. One wouldn’t, for instance, write an academic paper in informal English and expect it to be accepted. (Much as one wouldn’t wear a well-worn T-shirt to a job interview.) And because it tends to be the intelligent or successful who are most often in these “formal language required” settings, it’s unsurprising that formal language is believed to be the better form.

But informal language has its advantages. I’m hesitant to use singular they in formal writing, which at times forces me to concoct suboptimal versions of a sentence and pick one that I don’t like, only because the one that would sound best and most natural doesn’t feel formal enough. This need for formality slows me down and prevents me from saying what I’d really like to. Informal English is more flexible, and allows me to say what I mean more directly. Informal English isn’t a devolution because it lets me express myself better.

Another example is with contractions — and this also shows that informal English has its own rules apart from formal English. In most people’s forms of formal English, contractions are a no-no. But informal English allows both contractions and their uncontracted counterparts, the latter usually being used for emphasis. Consider these song lyrics:

I didn’t see this coming,
no, I did not.”

I find the emphasis of the second line to be greatly reduced in the formal equivalent “I did not see this coming, no, I did not.” In fact, I occasionally find when I’m writing in formal English that the uncontracted version sounds too strident, but my hands are tied.

Stan Carey also talked about this earlier in the week, specifically in the context of song lyrics. Informal language of course thrives in song lyrics, of course, but that doesn’t stop people grousing about it. But wouldn’t it be far worse to be stuck with formal songwriters, who report that they “can not get any satisfaction” or that you “are nothing but a hound”?

Stan’s post links to a January discussion by Geoff Pullum of what he called “Normal and Formal” language, and how the competent writer is the one who switches between them readily and appropriately, not the one who unfailingly aims for Formal. His use of “Normal” in place of “informal” is important. Informal language is normal. It’s how virtually all of us talk to each other, even the most highly educated or successful.

That’s part of why formal language can feel more difficult than informal. We use informal language constantly, and as a result it comes naturally to us. Formal language is rarer, and like tying a tie, it’s hard when you’re not used to doing it. Not only that, but it can end up feeling pretty unnatural when adhered to too closely. Pullum gives the example of commenter who wanted him to write “whom are you supposed to trust” (instead of who), despite its stiltedness. He didn’t, and he was right.

Summary: Informal language is not a devolved version of formal language. It has rules that formal language doesn’t (e.g., choosing whether to use a contraction), and is in general more natural and readable than formal language. Informal language is, as Geoff Pullum puts it, normal language. This means that while formal language can be good and at times more appropriate than informal, it’s not always right, and it shouldn’t be treated as the ideal form of language.

If English words were Norse gods, perhaps than would be the best candidate to play the role of Loki, the trickster god.* It causes confusion not only due to its similarity with then, but also by raising the question of what case the noun phrase it governs should have. Of course, there’s no confusion if you are a brilliant grammaticaster, as in this example from a list of peeves:

12. I/Me: We had several different takes on this, with one correspondent nailing it thus: “The correct choice can be seen when you finish the truncated sentence: He’s bigger than I am. ‘He’s bigger than me am’ actually sounds ridiculous and obviates the mistake.”**

Now, there’re two questions one should be asking of this explanation. First, can you just fill in the blank? By which I mean, does a sentence with ellipsis (the omission of words that are normally syntactically necessary but understood by context) necessarily have the same structure as a non-elided sentence? There are many different types of ellipsis, so this is a more complex question than I want to get into right now, but the short answer is no, and here’s a question-and-answer example:

Who drank my secret stash of ginger-grapefruit soda?
(1a) He/*Him drank it.
(1b) Him/*He.

(The asterisks indicate ungrammatical forms.) The second question to ask here is whether there even is an elision. We know that “He eats faster than I do” is a valid sentence, but does than necessarily trigger a clause after it? Could it be that “He eats faster than me” is not an incomplete version of the above structure but rather a different and complete structure?

This boils down to the question of whether than is strictly a conjunction (in which cases the conjoined things should be equivalent, i.e., both clauses) or can function as a preposition as well (in which case the following element is just a noun phrase, with accusative case from the preposition). It’s pretty easy to see that than behaves prepositionally in some circumstances, pointed out in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, via Language Log:

(2a) He’s inviting more people than just us.
(2b) I saw no one other than Bob.

But this prepositional usage has become frowned upon, save for instances like (2a) & (2b) where it’s unavoidable. Why? Well, it’s an interesting tale involving the love of Latin and the discoverer of dephlogisticated air. It all starts (according to the MWDEU) with Robert Lowth, who in 1762 claimed, under the influence of Latin, that than is a conjunction and noun phrases following it carry an understood verb. The case marking (e.g., I vs. me) would then be assigned based on the noun phrase’s role in the implied clause. So Lowth’s grammar allows (3a) and (3b) but blocks (3c):

(3a) He laughed much louder than I (did).
(3b) He hit you harder than (he hit) me.

(3c) *He laughed much louder than me.

Lowth’s explanation was not without its wrinkles; he accepted than whom as standard (possibly due to Milton’s use of it in Paradise Lost), and worked out a post hoc explanation for why this prepositional usage was acceptable and others like (3c) weren’t.

Lowth’s explanation was also not without its dissenters. Joseph Priestley, a discoverer of oxygen, argued against it in his Rudiments of English Grammar (1772 edition). Priestley noted that the combination of a comparative adjective and than behaved prepositionally, and that good writers used it as such. Regarding the Lowthian argument against it, he wrote:

“It appears to me, that the chief objection our grammarians have to both these forms, is that they are not agreeable to the idiom of the Latin tongue, which is certainly an argument of little weight, as that language is fundamentally different from ours”

Another pro-prepositionist was William Ward, whose 1765 Essay on Grammar argues that than in phrases like to stand higher than or to stand lower than is akin to prepositions like above or below, and thus that the prepositional usage of than should be allowed. That’s not much of an argument, because semantically equivalent words and phrases don’t have to have the same syntax — consider I gave him it vs. *I donated him it. But then again, Lowth is basing his argument on a completely separate language, so this is a slight improvement.

The real key, of course, is usage, and the MWDEU notes that Priestey and Ward are backed by standard usage at the time. Visser’s Historical English Syntax strengths the case with examples of prepositional than from a variety of estimable sources, including the Geneva Bible (1560), Shakespeare (1601), Samuel Johnson (1751, 1759), and Byron (1804). And of course prepositional than continues in modern usage — why else would we be having this argument?

Despite the irrelevance of his argument, Lowth’s opinion has stuck through to the present day, reinvigorated by new voices repeating the same old line, unwilling to concede something’s right just because it’s never been wrong. It’s the MWDEU, not the commenter mentioned at the top, who nails it:

“Ward’s explanation [that both conjunctive and prepositional uses are correct] covered actual usage perfectly, but it was probably too common-sensical—not sufficiently absolutist—to prevail.”

So in the end, we’re left with this. Than I and than me are both correct, in most cases. Than I is often regarded as more formal, but interestingly it’s the only one that can be clearly inappropriate.*** Using the nominative case blocks the noun phrase from being the object of the verb. I can’t write The wind chilled him more than I to mean that the wind chilled me less than it chilled him.

Sometimes this can be used to disambiguate; I love you more than him is ambiguous while I love you more than he isn’t. This only matters for clauses with objects, and in general, these tend not to be ambiguous given context, so the benefit of disambiguation must be weighed against the potentially over-formal tone of the nominative case. (I, for instance, think the second sentence above sounds less convincing, even though it’s clearer, because who talks about love so stiltedly?)

I’m branching a little off topic here, but I’d like to conclude with a general point from Priestley, a few paragraphs after the quote above:

“In several cases, as in those above-mentioned, the principles of our language are vague, and unsettled. The custom of speaking draws one way, and an attention to arbitrary and artificial rules another. Which will prevail at last, it is impossible to say. It is not the authority of any one person, or of a few, be they ever so eminent, that can establish one form of speech in preference to another. Nothing but the general practice of good writers, and good speakers can do it.”

Summary: Than can work as a conjunction or a preposition, meaning that than I/he/she/they and than me/him/her/them are both correct in most situations. The latter version is attested from the 16th century to the present day, by good writers in formal and informal settings. The belief that it is unacceptable appears to be a holdover from Latin-based grammars of English.

*: Interestingly, and counter to the mythology I learned from the Jim Carrey movie The Mask, Wikipedia suggests that Loki may not be so easily summarized as the god of mischief.

**: I’m pretty sure the use of obviate is a mistake here. I can just barely get a reading where it isn’t, if thinking of the full version of the sentence causes you to avoid the supposed mistake. But I suspect instead that our correspondent believes obviate means “make obvious”, in which case, ha ha, Muprhy’s Law

***: Is there a case where than me is undeniably incorrect? I can’t think of one.

Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry fame tweeted a link to this piece at the New York Daily News.* It’s a discussion of the online open letter that George Zimmerman put up, explaining his current situation and asking for contributions to his defense fund. I’ll skip the details of the Zimmerman/Martin case here, because the Daily News piece is so tangentially related to it that it could just as easily be about a man inconsequentially accused of stealing kitties as it is a microcosm of American paranoia, prejudice, and gun laws.

What’s interesting about the letter, it seems, is that it is not well-written, leading one of the Daily News’s bloggers to critique its “really bad grammar”. Why is that newsworthy? I don’t know — something about how Zimmerman’s playing “fast and loose with the most basic laws of grammar” is only going to support the idea that he’s also “a careless vigilante who played fast and loose with the law”.

Of course, Zimmerman isn’t playing fast and loose with the most basic laws of grammar. If he were doing that, he would be writing things like “Me innocents are”, violating in three words English rules of word order, subject-verb agreement, noun-adjective agreement, and case assignment. No, the eight objections the author raises to Zimmerman’s writing are four word choices and four punctuation choices — three of them comma placement. Two of these (periods outside quotation marks and that/which) are American stylistic standards that are not uniformly followed even by Americans. As Jonathon noted, “Let’s be fair: George Zimmerman’s really bad grammar is no worse than most people’s”.

Such overexcited objections are old hat; what I found interesting was a question posed by the author of the post, Alexander Nazaryan. Zimmerman uses whom in one of his relative clauses where who is clearly more appropriate, to the confoundment of Nazaryan. Nazaryan asks:

“Why does Zimmerman use the outdated and notoriously tricky objective pronoun ‘whom’ when ‘who’ is correct and, in any case, would generally suffice? ‘Whom’ may sound more sophisticated, but it is wrong.”

Nazaryan has partially answered his own question by noting the whiff of sophistication around whom, but if he really wants to know the motivation, he need look no further than a mirror. As a preface to his piece, Nazaryan writes that when he was a high school English teacher, he would sometimes punish students by making them write letters of apology with “the only stipulation [being] that the grammar in such a missive had to be impeccable.”

Why? Not because it’s a useful learning experience, a hands-on application of the language skills he’s teaching them. Rather, it’s because Nazaryan claims “good grammar equaled a clean conscience”, which is first-order balderdash.**

He notes that it would take multiple drafts before the student got the letter to adhere to his grammar. That’s unsurprising; judging by his examples of the prescribed changes (no final prepositions!), his grammar contained a bunch of unmotivated edicts that were not accurate representations of English, written or otherwise.

So why would someone feel so compelled to try to use an outdated and tricky pronoun that they put it in where it isn’t needed? This isn’t tough to see; people are taught — by pedantic English teachers like this very author — that English has rules that one must use when writing correctly. Yet these rules, these supposedly critical rules, cause you to write in ways that feel unnatural and don’t reflect standard English. Whom, due to its rarity in informal and spoken English, sounds more formal than who. If I knew I didn’t know which to use, but I knew whom was formal and unfamiliar, much like the rules I was supposed to have learned in school, I’d probably choose it here.

Uninformed English teachers like Nazaryan have caused this, with his ill-explained (and often unexplainable) edicts that lead people to become so confused about what’s right and wrong that they try to use what sounds fancier in the vain hope of cracking the mysterious code that is their own native language. And tying good grammar to clean consciences or honesty or moral probity or good thinking only intensifies the problem, as people who’d normally try to stick to their natural form of English feel compelled to reach for a formal form that they’ve never been properly taught.


*: Jonathon’s since followed up with a post addressing the piece’s ridiculousness, especially its “explicit moralization of grammar”.

**: I know I harp on certain points, so I’m trying to be short about this, but really?! How in the hell would anyone ever convince themselves of something so patently absurd? I have to assume this is sarcasm, because otherwise, what?

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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