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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.

I became aware of the Society Against Grammatical Boobery in the same way as I’ve learned about everything important over the last year: Twitter. I have good news for all of you for whom the Queen’s English Society has grown stale, and that’s that the SAGB follows in their footsteps of over-reactions to minor grammatical errors and a staunch belief that their personal opinions ought to shape your English, but adds the word boob over and over again to keep it fresh.

[SAGB Logo]

But dang, they do have a good logo.

By way of introduction, I’ll offer up a few of the complaints from their “Booberies” section, along with my thoughts on them. Let’s start with their condemnation of “inappropriate” commas in this caption on a New York Times article:

“Tyler, the Creator, of Odd Future, at the Coachella music festival in Indio, Calif., last month. His new album, “Goblin,” will be released this coming Tuesday.”

Not one of those commas is incorrect. Tyler, the Creator is the stage name of Tyler Okonma, and the name contains the comma. of Odd Future is a non-restrictive prepositional phrase, so it should be offset from the rest of the sentence by commas. Cities and states are separated by commas, and states are followed by commas in most newspaper styles I know. “Goblin” is another non-restrictive modifier, so that needs its surrounding commas as well. Sure, the caption might look nicer if it were reworked to require fewer commas, but as it stands, I wouldn’t remove a single one.

Let’s move on to this complaint against a whole ‘nother:

“Some people speak a whole ‘nother language! ‘Whole’ is not an infix.”

An infix is an affix that is inserted into a word stem instead of being attached to the beginning (i.e., prefixes) or end (i.e., suffixes). An example is the Tagalog infix -um-, which is inserted after the initial consonant or consonant cluster. Thus the word sulat becomes sumulat.*

Formal English has no infixes, but colloquial Englishes do have some things that are either infixes or like infixes. A prime example of it comes in the Australian poem “Tumba Bloody Rumba”, which takes its name from the town of Tumbarumba. The full poem is available here as a video, or here as text, and in both cases the word bloody is inserted into words such as kangaroos, meself, and enough. American English has this as well, with such uses as the non-profane Ned Flanders’ diddly or the quite profane abso-fucking-lutely. Or, as one with any familiarity with homey American English would surely be aware, a whole nother.

Jose Flanders

"Buenos-ding-dong-diddly-días, señor."

Whole does not appear to be a productive infix like Tagalog’s -um-, by which I mean that whole doesn’t get infixed to words other than another. As such, it may be better described as an instance of tmesis, a literary device wherein one word is inserted into another, rather than a true infix. Nevertheless, the idiom a whole nother has existed for at least a century. It’s a casual usage, sure, but it’s not noteworthy, and certainly not cringeworthy.**

The rest of my objections can be lumped together under the heading of “treating their opinions in debatable matters as gospel truth”, much the same thing we all had a laugh at the Queen’s English Society for doing. They admonish Oprah Winfrey for not using the serial comma. They refuse to accept apostrophe-s for plurals of acronyms/initialisms/individual letters. And boy, do they ever have a thing against comma splices, even when used judiciously.

All in all, it’s a site that alternates between suggesting people are boobs for making minor errors and suggesting people are boobs for having made different choices than the SAGB did. Pretty much the same boring griping schtick as always, with the only distinguishing characteristic being their obsession with the word boob, an eccentricity that gets tiresome pretty quickly.

*: More on this infixation as an open issue in Optimality Theory is available in this article [PDF, $] if you want to go further down the phonological rabbit-hole.

**: Or, as the SAGB puts it, “booberific”.

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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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