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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.

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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.

Gender-neutral language really burns some people’s beans. One common argument against gender-neutral language is that it’s something new. See, everyone was fine with generic he up until [insert some turning point usually in the 1960s or 1970s], which means concerns about gender neutrality in language are just manufactured complaints by “arrogant ideologues” or people over-concerned with “sensitivity”, and therefore ought to be ignored.

I have two thoughts on this argument. The first: so what? Society progresses, and over time we tend to realize that certain things we used to think were just fine weren’t. The fact that we didn’t see anything wrong with it before doesn’t mean we were right then and wrong now. Furthermore, women have gained power and prominence in many traditionally male-dominated areas, so even if gender-neutral language had been unnecessary in the past (e.g., when all Congressmen were men), that wouldn’t mean it’s a bad idea now.

But my second thought is this: the very premise is wrong. Concerns about gender-neutral language date back far beyond our lifetimes. Here are a few examples:

Freshmen. In the mid-19th century, the first American women’s colleges appeared. One of the earliest of these, Elmira College, had to figure out what to call the first year students, i.e. freshmen. For its first ten years, Elmira referred to this class as the protomathians, before deciding to return to the established usage. Rutgers, similarly, proposed novian to replace “freshman” when they began accepting female students.

Mankind. You can go pretty far back in English and see examples of mankind being viewed as non-gender-neutral. This led some authors who wanted to avoid any confusion about whether they were including women to use the phrase “mankind and womankind”; here’s Anthony Trollope doing so in 1874, and other people’s attestations from 1858, 1843, 1783, and 1740. This suggests that mankind was viewed as sufficiently likely to be non-generic as to cause at least hesitation if not confusion. In some sense, this is sort of an early generic he or she. Speaking of which…

He or she. He or she really gets people’s goats, and to some extent I can see why; it’s not short and simple like pronouns standardly are, and it can throw off the rhythm of the sentence. (This is why I prefer singular they.) Given that it’s ungainly, you might suspect, as most people do, that this is a new usage that only appeared once it was too politically incorrect to ignore women. But while it only started getting popular in the 70s, it’s been used much longer than that. Here it appears 19 times in two paragraphs in an 1864 book of Mormon Doctrine. Turning from religion to law, here it is in an 1844 Maryland law, and here it is in various British laws from 1815. Here’re examples from Acts passed by the First American Congress in 1790, and so on and so on.

Person as a morpheme. Another common complaint is about supposedly ugly new words like salesperson or chairperson or firefighter.* But such gender-neutralized forms were already being created as needed before the 1970s. Here’s salesperson used 100 times in a book from 1916.** Here’s another example, in the title of an article discussing paying commission to salespeople back in 1919. The OED offers even older examples, with tradesperson in 1886 and work-person in 1807.

Singular they. I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but singular they — using they in place of generic he for singular referents of unknown gender — has been around a long, long time. Henry Churchyard’s site lists off examples spanning from 1400 to the present day, with a special focus on Jane Austen’s 75 singular uses of their.

In conclusion, I’m definitely not saying that gender-neutral language was as prominent in the past as it is today. I’m just saying that when someone says that everyone was fine with non-neutral English up until the 1970s, they’re wrong. Clearly people were concerned about this before then, and adjusted the language to be gender-neutral when it seemed appropriate. This is not something totally new; it is not unprecedented; it is not a dastardly attempt to undermine the English language. It is just an expansion of an existing concern about English usage.


*: I just want to jump in and note that I find firefighter more precise and cooler-sounding than fireman; then again, I may have some unresolved issues with the latter term stemming from the difficulties I had in beating Fire Man when playing Mega Man.

**: The first part of this book is even titled “The Salesperson and Efficient Salesmanship”, showing gradient gender-neutrality decision-making, where gender-neutral forms are used when the gender is prominent or easily removed, and non-neutral forms when the gender is subtler or difficult to remove.

If you’re a native speaker of English, you are no doubt familiar with two meanings of since, which I’ll refer to as the “time” usage (1a) and the “reason” usage (1b):

(1a) Bob Patel has owned and operated the beach motel since 1983.
(1b) Carton says they will first escort his sister home, since he wants Mr. Cruncher to come with them […]

It’s odd, though, because I keep seeing people insist that only one of these common usages should be accepted. The first, as far as I’m aware, is accepted without complaint in all quarters. But the reason-usage certainly raises some hackles. For example, Jesse Kornbluth writes:

“SINCE and BECAUSE [are] not synonyms. ‘Since’ only refers to time: ‘Since August, he’s been in a funk.’ It cannot be used to suggest causality: ‘Since he’s depressed, we never call him.'”

I bolded the end of that complaint, because it’s obviously untrue; since certainly can be used to suggest causality. Kornbluth just did so. He means that it oughtn’t to be used in this way, of course, but for someone who subtitled his piece “Ten usage and grammar errors that could (or should) cripple a career”, Kornbluth is being surprisingly cavalier about his modals.

I digress. The point under debate here is whether since is acceptable in the reason-usage. Let’s start by noting a prominent writer whose career Kornbluth figures could or should have been crippled by his usage of since: Shakespeare. From The Comedy of Errors (via the OED):

Since that my beautie cannot please his eie,
Ile weepe what’s left away.”

And it’s not just Shakespeare. This reason-usage of since is antedated to the mid-1500s in the OED. Paul Brians and Bryan A. Garner (in the Chicago Manual of Style) track it back at least to the 14th century. So older English writers didn’t see a problem with it. Most modern writers don’t either; if they did, Kornbluth wouldn’t have anything to complain about.

In fact, though this is a persistent myth, I’m having a heck of a time finding major sources pushing for it. None of the usage guides on my shelf mention it, not even the ones that seem to be composed entirely of unanalyzed pet peeves. The MWDEU notes that this is a newer complaint, and one that seems to replace an older preference for since over because in this context.

I suspect the rule has come from stylebooks. The American Psychological Association’s stylebook, for instance, bans the reason-usage, and reports that this is the fifth most violated rule in their book. The Guardian also bans it, though the AP and Chicago Manuals don’t. The Economist appears to embrace it; I see no entry on since, and the guide itself employs the reason-usage in a discussion of stanch and staunch.

For stylebooks that do ban the reason-usage, the stated concern is primarily one of ambiguity between the time- and reason-usages. Sometimes that’s a valid concern. Compare these two sentences:

(2a) Since you left, I haven’t eaten; I’m still stuffed from our meal.
(2b) Since you left, I haven’t eaten; you took the forks with you.

These start off ambiguous, and in some situations that could be bad. But these ambiguities are pretty restricted. Since has to introduce a clause (not a time/date as in (1a)), and it generally has to be in a past tense (not the present as in (1b)). Furthermore, the effect of the ambiguity is often small. For instance, consider the ambiguity in this sentence from the MWDEU:

“In a second term, Carter might have moved the course of government toward the left, but since Reagan won the election the nation’s political movement has been toward the right”

I have a hard time distinguishing between the two meanings in this sentence. I suspect that since is intended to hit a midpoint between correlation and causation here, a sort of each-influenced-the-other situation; Reagan wouldn’t have been elected without some rightward shift, but the rightward shift wouldn’t have taken off without Reagan’s election, either. This fits with the intuitions of both the MDWEU and Garner, who note that since expresses causation more mildly than because does.

If you’re worried about the ambiguity, go ahead and avoid since in place of because. No one’s going to get mad at you for not using since. And when ambiguity is intolerable, maybe it makes sense to avoid it. But in general, English users haven’t encountered much trouble from this tiny ambiguity over all these centuries since its emergence. So don’t mistake it for a rule of English — and since it isn’t one, don’t judge others for using since in this way.

Summary: Since can be used with more or less the same meaning as because, although it’s less emphatic about the causal relationship. This can be slightly ambiguous, but only under certain conditions. You can avoid it if that concerns you, but it’s perfectly acceptable to use since in place of because.

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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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