Advice on the comma splice
In our latest update, the comma splice has been given its own entry in Oxford Dictionaries. A comma splice is an instance of using a comma to link two independent clauses (clauses that form complete sentences if standing alone), as in the sentence:
Oxford can get bitterly cold in winter, it surprises some people.
Raise your hand if you cringed when reading that sentence! In fact, perhaps the single most important thing to know about comma splices is that they are often reviled by grammarians, who argue that they impart a careless or amateurish flavor to sentences.
That being said, the addition of ‘comma splice’ to the dictionary is not necessarily an indication that Oxford Dictionaries condones (or even outright forbids) their use; instead, its inclusion ought to be interpreted solely as a comment on how often the word ‘comma splice’ itself is used in English today. Indeed, it can be reasonably extrapolated that this is because the comma splice is so often touted as a prime example of a grammatical error.
Oxford can get bitterly cold in winter; it surprises some people.
Oxford can get bitterly cold in winter. It surprises some people.
However, in all of these cases, the sentence would sound more or less the same if spoken aloud in conversation; a comma, a semicolon, and a period would reflect a rest in the middle of the sentence, as the speaker takes a quick pause in between points. This begs the question: why would a semicolon or a period be considered an acceptable typographical choice to reflect that pause between independent clauses, whereas a comma would not? What exactly is so careless or amateurish about that tiny, curly line?
One answer may be that commas are already somewhat burdened as a grammatical symbol: they are used to indicate a pause between many different types of clauses, as well as to separate items in a list. English speakers are quite used to seeing and using them – sometimes several in the same sentence! By contrast, periods and semicolons are used more rarely and more specifically than commas: periods conclude sentences, while semicolons indicate a pause between two main clauses. As a result, using a comma in the sentence above may be overly taxing on the reader (who must then decide which of many functions it is serving in the sentence), when it would have been more straightforward to use a symbol that typically only serves one function. As a result, it may be considered careless or amateurish to tax the reader’s understanding in this way.
In any event, the advice at that point is clear: simply replace comma splices with periods or semicolons. But is it really that clear? Semicolons are often seen in formal or academic writing, for example, but what should we do when we’re writing emails or text messages (which are much closer in tone to spoken conversation than an academic paper anyway)? Doesn’t it seem a bit too formal to use a semicolon in an email to friends about brunch, or a bit too brusque to use periods in a text message? Is it ok to use comma splices in those situations? How and when do we follow these comma splice rules in our everyday lives?
There is, of course, no single or straightforward answer to these questions, and writers often simply devise their own personal style depending on the context in which they are writing. Many people do use semicolons in their informal correspondence; many others use comma splices and still communicate successfully when texting their friends. Another popular alternative is the em-dash, an extremely versatile (and itself often contentious) symbol that can be used instead of commas, semicolons, periods, and even parentheses. And other writers still go for conjunctions such as and or but (or as, because, or so if there is a causal connection between the independent clauses):
Oxford can get bitterly cold in winter, and it surprises some people.
What do you think? Which of these alternatives to the comma splice do you prefer? Or do you in fact prefer the comma splice itself? Leave us a comment below and tell us why!