The Comma Splice

by RS on January 13, 2012

Have you ever had someone comment that you have a comma splice and then not point it out? And because you don’t know what it is, you can’t fix it. It’s simple to remember:  a comma splice is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses. For example, Stevenson’s romances are entertaining, they are full of exciting adventures. That is a comma splice.

According Strunk and White in The Elements of Style:

Do not join independent clauses by a comma.

If a two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semi-colon.

Therefore, the previous sentence should be: Stevenson’s romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures. Or simply add a period and turn the sentence into two separate ones, but if you omit any punctuation you have a run-on sentence.

When do you insert a comma? Add a conjunction. Stevenson’s romances are entertaining, for they are full of exciting adventures.

To correct a comma splice, you can do the following (example from Wikipedia):

Simply removing the comma does not correct the error, but results in a run-on sentence. There are several ways to correct a comma splice:

  • Change the comma to a semicolon, colon, or dash:
    • It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
    • We cannot reach town before dark: it is nearly half past five.
    • It is nearly half past five—we cannot reach town before dark.
  • Write the two clauses as two separate sentences:
    • It is nearly half past five. We cannot reach town before dark.
  • Insert a coordinating conjunction following the comma:
    • It is nearly half past five, and we cannot reach town before dark.
    • It is nearly half past five, so we cannot reach town before dark.
  • Make one clause dependent on the other:
    • Because it is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark.
    • It is nearly half past five, which means we cannot reach town before dark.
  • Use a semicolon plus a conjunctive adverb:
    • It is nearly half past five; hence, we cannot reach town before dark.

In the colon (:) example above, the two clauses must be transposed. A colon often introduces a reason or explanation: the colon becomes a substitute for “because.” The clause giving the reason (“it is nearly half past five”) must follow the clause that needs explaining (“We cannot reach town before dark”).

When in doubt about using a semicolon, dash, or colon, your best bet is to make the incorrect sentence into two complete sentences.

4 comments
guilie172
guilie172

Great post, Rebeca--thanks for sharing!

Sharon S Schlesinger
Sharon S Schlesinger

I honestly did not know what a comma splice was. Thought it had to do with fishing lines.

RebecaSchiller
RebecaSchiller moderator

@Sharon S Schlesinger Writing this post clarified some questions I had about the semicolon. But now that I've touched on the comma, I'll get more into detail about it in upcoming posts.

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