What Is a Comma Splice and Why Should You Care?
Before I embarked on the glamorous, jewel-encrusted life of a freelancer, I taught college English for close to a decade. Over the course of those nine luxurious, champagne-soaked years of commuting from one side of Chicago to the other on my yacht and getting paid in rubies and Kanye West concert tickets, I graded a lot of student papers. Like, a lot a lot. We’re talking about thousands of papers, and one of the most common errors I found — if not the most common error — was the comma splice.
It may have a cool name that evokes swordplay (or perhaps that creepy Adrien Brody movie you rented back in 2009), but comma splices are a scourge on academic and professional writing. Here’s how to rid your content of the treacherous comma splice for good.
What Is a Comma Splice?
A comma splice occurs when you join two complete sentences with a comma. It’s an insidious type of run-on sentence that’s responsible for toppling otherwise well-written communication and reducing the ideas within to rubble.
Too dramatic? OK. How about this for a comma splice definition: It’s an insanely common grammar issue that’s relatively easy to find and fix.
How To Fix a Comma Splice
There are four main ways to eliminate a comma splice — five if you count just throwing that term paper full of them in a garbage can fire and calling it a day, but we’re going to pursue a less combustible route:
1. Break those two independent clauses into two separate sentences using a period.
This is the most straightforward way to fix a comma splice. Just swap in a period for the offending comma:
- No: Curt ate the last slice of pizza, everybody hates him now.
- Yes: Curt ate the last slice of pizza. Everybody hates him now.
That seems like an overreaction to me (sorry, Curt!), but at least it’s grammatically correct.
2. Use a semicolon instead of a comma.
While you can never, ever join two independent clauses with a comma, if you throw a jaunty, round little hat on top of said comma and turn it into a semicolon, you’re all set. Check it out:
- No: I can’t believe my math teacher went to Burning Man, he seems like such a dork.
- Yes: I can’t believe my math teacher went to Burning Man; he seems like such a dork.
Semicolons aren’t for the faint of grammatical heart. While they can make your writing look more sophisticated than Natalie Portman discussing South African wines while wearing a monocle, it’s important to reserve this method only for when the two sentences are very closely related in subject matter. Take a look at these two examples to see what I’m talking about:
- No: My son threw the remote control in the toilet; I put him in timeout.
- Yes: My son threw the remote control in the toilet; my husband was supposed to be home 45 minutes ago.
The first example works because the second independent clause “I put him in timeout” is the direct consequence of the first independent clause “My son threw the remote control in the toilet.” These two events are very closely related, and the first idea flows quickly and logically into the next.
In the second example, it’s not difficult to see why the fact that the speaker’s husband is late to bail her out is on her mind, but it’s not as directly linked to #ToiletRemote. The ideas are related, but they’re not very closely related. In this case, a semicolon isn’t the best way to remedy the comma splice. The sentence, just like this frazzled mother, needs something a little stronger.
3. Join those two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction.
That’s right. It’s time to call in the FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. They’re just like BTS, except that they’re coordinating conjunctions. Take a look:
- No: Our server put up with 90 minutes of my dad’s corny jokes, I tipped her 30%.
- Yes: Our server put up with 90 minutes of my dad’s corny jokes, so I tipped her 30%.
Using a comma plus a coordinating conjunction is a simple way to fix a comma splice, but choosing the right conjunction for the job is crucial. You already know how to use and and or. (According to my 14-year-old cousin, they’re like the Jimin and V of coordinating conjunctions.) Here’s a quick refresher on the five less popular coordinating conjunctions and how to use them:
Use but or yet to show contrast or reveal a surprising turn of events:
- My boss has called me by the wrong name for the past 18 months, yet I still work here.
- Dave has a weak stomach, but he eats Taco Bell four times a week anyway.
Use for when you mean because:
- Laura grimaced at the thought of foot-long hot dogs, for she has been a vegan since 2002.
Use so when you’re explaining cause and effect:
- My dad sold his apartment and bought a houseboat, so he should probably learn how to swim.
Use nor if you’re a delicate Victorian girl who enjoys horseback riding:
- I don’t like Ariana Grande’s music, nor do I care for her work on Victorious.
Seriously. Virtually no one uses nor in modern writing. (Yep. It’s totally Jin.)
4. Combine the ideas into one sentence.
In some cases, it’s possible to forgo fancy punctuation substitutions and just combine the ideas from a comma-spliced sentence into one grammatically gorgeous sentence. Here’s what that looks like:
- No: The kids want to order meatball subs, they also want to rent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.
- Yes: The kids want to order meatball subs and rent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.
Comma Splice Examples
It’s time for a lightning round. Below are 10 “before and after” pairs. See if you can fix the comma splice before you read the suggested correction. You can do this silently in your head, or you can loudly yell it in your best Sean Connery impression. Either way, remember that there’s often more than one way to correct a comma splice.
Let’s get shtarted, Moneypenny:
- No: I can’t find my car keys, maybe I left them in the freezer again.
- Yes: I can’t find my car keys. Maybe I left them in freezer again.
- No: Grandpa got us a dinner reservation at that new Italian restaurant, it’s for 4:30 in the afternoon.
- Yes: Grandpa got us a dinner reservation at that new Italian restaurant, but it’s for 4:30 in the afternoon.
- No: Turn left at the statue of Ben Franklin riding a shark, you can’t miss it.
- Yes: Turn left at the statue of Ben Franklin riding a shark; you can’t miss it.
- No: Isabel wants a guacamole fountain for her quinceañera, she requested a Metallica cover band.
- Yes: Isabel wants a guacamole fountain and a Metallica cover band for her quinceañera.
- No: The Cubs have the worst record in baseball, they’re relocating to Anchorage, AK.
- Yes: The Cubs have the worst record in baseball, so they’re relocating to Anchorage, AK.
- No: Lori’s band, Tuberculosis Corset, is headlining Steampunk Fest this weekend, you can stream their entire set online.
- Yes: Lori’s band, Tuberculosis Corset, is headlining Steampunk Fest this weekend, and you can stream their entire set online.
- No: Aaron is allergic to pie, it makes his eyes swell shut and his ears turn red.
- Yes: Aaron is allergic to pie; it makes his eyes swell shut and his ears turn red.
- No: Shonda has never met Post Malone, she knows that if they ever do meet, he will fall in love with her instantly.
- Yes: Shonda has never met Post Malone, yet she knows that if they ever do meet, he will fall in love with her instantly.
- No: My car needs a new transmission, it also needs a steering wheel.
- Yes: My car needs a new transmission and a steering wheel.
- No: I’m sorry, Brad Pitt, I can’t star in your new movie, I never learned to read.
- Yes: I’m sorry, Brad Pitt. I can’t star in your new movie, for I never learned to read.
Comma splices are just one flavor of run-on sentence. A run-on sentence can also occur in the form of a fused sentence, which is when you mash — or fuse — two or more independent clauses together without any punctuation. A fused sentence looks like this:
- Dad cancelled our trip to Disneyland we’re going to Target instead.
Here, we have two depressing independent clauses in play:
- Dad cancelled our trip to Disneyland.
- We’re going to Target instead.
In the fused sentence example, they’re mashed together into one mega-sentence. To fix a fused sentence, you can employ the same methods used to remedy a comma splice. Check it out:
- Dad cancelled our trip to Disneyland. We’re going to Target instead.
- Dad cancelled our trip to Disneyland; we’re going to Target instead.
- Dad cancelled our trip to Disneyland, so we’re going to Target instead.
Hey, at least the lines will probably be shorter. Just remember not to wear a red shirt.
One Rule To, Uh, Rule Them All
Don’t let comma splices divide and conquer your writing. Pay attention to your comma placement and remember this one grammatical law: You can never, ever use a comma to join two complete sentences.
It’s not the golden rule — heck, it’s not even one of the Vanderpump rules — but keep that tucked away in your mental fanny pack as you proofread, and you’ll see your writing’s clarity and professionalism skyrocket.
Now it’s your turn. Got any advice for combating the dreaded comma splice? How about a better way to remember the coordinating conjunctions than FANBOYS (barf)? Is my cousin all wrong about BTS? Sound off in the comments below!