What Comma Splices Are and Why You Need to Avoid Them

There are many new words and phrases we learn in school. For example, tetrahydrate, APA format, diaspora, and so forth. The term “comma splice” is thrown around in English classes on a regular basis–no doubt you have heard this term a time or two in your school career. Yet unless you took the time to study this common error and correct the places where a teacher or tutor pointed it out, you may not have realized what it is exactly.

That’s ok! Taking a little time out to look at what a comma splice is today will help you in future writing. We’re all on a journey of learning, and mastering the comma splice is just one step along the way.

Just What Is a Comma Splice?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a comma splice as what “happens when a comma inappropriately links two independent clauses.” It goes on to explain that “If you splice something together, you join two things that were originally separate.”

First, it is important to understand what an independent clause is. An independent clause is a phrase with both a subject and a verb and can be used as a sentence by itself. When you join two independent clauses together with only a comma, you are circumventing proper end punctuation (a period, exclamation point, question mark, etc.).

Since independent clauses can be their own sentences, they can be considered “two things that were originally separate,” like our definition of a splice discusses. Take a look at this comma splice example to see if you can’t identify the two separate thoughts:

The girl sat at the bus stop, she looked sad.

Although this example sentence is short, you can see what I mean. The two thoughts separated by a comma are almost mutually exclusive. Both clauses contain a subject (“girl” and “she”) and a verb (“sat” and “looked”). They could each be their own sentence: The girl sat at the bus stop. She looked sad.

This is how a comma splice is created and why it is incorrect. Yet how do splices come about and why should you avoid them?

Why You Need to Avoid Comma Splices

Comma splices occur for more than a couple of reasons, but one is similarity of thought. As you can see, the two thoughts expressed in the above example are very closely related. For one thing, “she” is a pronoun that refers back to “the girl.” For another, the second clause expands on the image produced in the first. It’s like the writer connected these clauses because their thoughts were flowing and they didn’t take the time to fully end the thought.

Comma splices can also occur out of lack of understanding when sentences should end, which can be overcome by understanding how clauses work. I won’t go into dependent clauses, like introductory phrases and nonessential clauses, but I will say this: you don’t end dependent clauses with a period because they usually must be connected to a clause that has both a subject and a verb.

The most important part about avoiding comma splices is that doing so is necessary in order to present your best self in your writing. When you see a comma splice in someone’s writing, you will probably find that the result is very choppy and abrupt writing that can slow down readers, or worse, confuse them.

Ultimately, avoiding comma splices is imperative for solid, clear writing. Comma splices not only slow down or confuse a reader; they expose lack of knowledge or carelessness, or both. Since part of a good essay is presenting a writer who can compose strong sentences, avoiding comma splices becomes part of a good essay.

How to Fix Them

Sometimes the only way to avoid a comma splice is to fix one you find while proofreading your essay, annotated bibliography (if you have one), and anything else you worked on. And once you discover a comma splice, it is really not too difficult to fix. Look at the sentences surrounding the error to give you some context before making a judgment call on which correction to use.

There are three main ways to fix a comma splice. They include:

  • Creating a new sentence
  • Inserting a semicolon
  • Adding a comma and a coordinating conjunction

Creating a new sentence is perhaps the easiest way to fix a comma splice: simply insert a period at the end of the first clause and capitalize the next word. However, this may not be the most effective way to fix the splice. Since splices are often a result of closely related thoughts, different punctuation might be preferable.

Another solution might be a semicolon. Inserting a semicolon where a comma splice once graced a sentence is probably even easier than making a new sentence. However, knowing when to use a semicolon can be tricky. Semicolons frequently function to end one thought before beginning another, and unless they are separating a list of items with internal punctuation, they should be used when a period could also be used. Semicolons are best reserved for joining two independent clauses that are closely related in thought. Using our example above, a properly placed semicolon would look like this:

The girl sat at the bus stop; she looked sad.

Thirdly, using a coordinating conjunction can be effective. Remember that the coordinating conjunctions are FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) and that a comma always precedes them. Using the example above:

The girl sat at the bus stop, and she looked sad.

There are other ways to resolve a comma splice (such as rewriting the sentence or using a colon), but these three main ways are very useful to most writers. In my opinion, the best choice in this example is the semicolon because while the thoughts are separate, they are closely related, and using “and” is a bit redundant.

Revising for Correctness

At the end of the day, revising (reading over your work in search of errors and improvements) is the only way to truly ensure that your writing is free from annoying comma splices. Before turning in or publishing any written work, read over it, and do so more than once. You might find it helpful to read it out loud. Each time you look over your writing, you are liable to find mistakes like comma splices.

Look for comma splices in your writing before turning it in or publishing it. You don’t necessarily need another set of eyes to do this, either (although this might be helpful); now you know how to correct comma splices on your own!

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