The Comma Splice

Your teachers point them out all the time, but what actually is a comma splice?

In technical lingo, a comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined with only a comma.

Metaphorically, you’ve slapped together two buns with ketchup but left out the hamburger.

Example: Plastic water bottles are taxing on the environment, millions of tons of bottles are added to the ocean every year.

On either side of a comma splice is a complete thought with a subject and a verb (I ran, I jumped). Usually, we are told to replace the comma with a period, but there are actually several ways to adjust this sentence.

 

Examples:

  1. Add a conjunction. Plastic water bottles are taxing on the environment, but millions of tons of bottles are added to the ocean every year.
  2. Add a semicolon. Plastic water bottles are taxing on the environment; millions of tons of bottles are added to the ocean every year.
  3. Make the 2nd clause dependent by removing the verb. Plastic water bottles are taxing on the environment, millions of tons of bottles added to the ocean every year.
  4. Make the 1st clause dependent by adding a subordinating conjunction. Even though plastic water bottles are taxing on the environment, millions of tons of bottles are added to the ocean every year.

 

But what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with a comma splice?

Comma splices make reading difficult, especially when an academic reader expects certain standards and anticipates sentences to be constructed in a particular way. Imagine you’re driving and know you have a turn up ahead. As you near it, you realize there’s no street sign telling you where to turn or where you’re turning. Can you get where you’re supposed to go? Of course. But that second of confusion is jolting and frustrating. You might even have to turn around and try again.

On the other hand, we use comma splices all the time in tweets and texts. You’ve probably texted a friend something like: “JK, don’t freak out, it’s fine.” We use these splices to convey a particular tone.

The bottom line is that punctuation is used just for that–conveying tone and meaning. So feel free to use comma splices, but consider the context and audience when doing so.

 

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A Comma Rule To Forget

You’ve probably heard it many times:

“Place a comma wherever you naturally pause.”

While it’s true that commas are meant to help readers know where to pause, and that they often go where you would naturally pause, this rule can make for comma-happy writers.

For example: “In the book, Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling, Harry, finds out, on his eleventh birthday, that he is a wizard.”

After removing unnecessary and incorrect commas, we have: “In the book Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Harry finds out on his eleventh birthday that he is a wizard.”

While placing commas where we naturally pause is a great rule to start off with, it is one that is best forgotten as you learn where commas really go. That’s why, for the next few weeks, we will be tackling common comma errors.

 

 

 

Quick Tip Tuesday—The Dash

The dash is my favorite punctuation mark—it is versatile, visually pleasing, and is a great go-to if you’re ever unsure about which punctuation to use. In fact, it can take the place of colons, parentheses, commas, and semicolons!

  • Colons: I bought three kinds of pasta—Alfredo, linguini, and angel hair.
  • Parentheses: The taste of fresh strawberries—sweet, tangy, and fresh—is far superior to their taste in the off-season.
  • Commas: In her long, wonderful life—she had only one regret.
  • Semicolons: James hated the smell of flowers—they reminded him of lost love, dead hopes, and decay.

 


Note: Today I’m referring to the “em dash”—this really long dash as opposed to a hyphen or a short en dash (–)

Positively Appositive

Appositives are nouns or noun phrases that rename another noun, and they are usually surrounded by commas. They allow writers to color in the vague outlines of their subjects, giving them depth with shading and detail. Even if you’ve written them before, writing appositives regularly is a great way to train your mind to go deeper with descriptions.

Examples:

“The dog, a husky Labrador, romped outside.”

“We gathered at Henry’s, an eclectic coffee shop where local bands played.”

“Wendy pulled up her hair, a tangled mess after her trek in the rain, and covered it with a hat.”

 

 

Let’s Begin with Active Voice

“Donna began to look around.”

“I begin to eat cookies.”

“Garry begins waking up.”

The sentences above are examples of passive voice. Passive voice sneaks into writing when writers don’t use strong verbs. It’s like a limp handshake—half-hearted and awkward.

The words “begin/began” automatically slow down action. While whey are only one culprit of passive voice, let’s focus for now on replacing them with active verbs:

“Donna investigated.”

“I munched on cookies.”

“Garry yawns and stretches.”

The character’s actions are now more vivid and active.

To summarize, never have a character “begin” something when they should just do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Admonition on the Employment of Thesauruses

A Catechism 

What’s wrong with the following sentence?

This sentence may not adumbrate what it is putative to augur in behalf of I’m employing commodious lexemes that resonate sumptuously but that don’t concur in the censure.

If you guessed that the sentence was written using a thesaurus, then you are correct! Here’s what I actually intended to say:

This sentence may not mean what it is supposed to mean because I’m using big words that sound impressive but that don’t fit in the sentence.  

That’s a lot more clear, right? I’m using language that makes sense and fits the sentence’s meaning while also considering my audience.

An Exposition for Why We Manipulate Thesauruses 

If you’re like me, you were told in high school to use a thesaurus to strengthen your vocabulary. This was so engrained in me that I still use a thesaurus on occasion to learn different ways of saying the same things. However, thesauruses can be dangerous if we simply pull out words without knowing their true definitions. We see this all the time at the writing center. A paper will be going smoothly until we come across a word that just—doesn’t fit. Most of the time, not even I know what the word means. When we look it up, more often than not it doesn’t match what the writer intended.

So why do we keep using a thesaurus? To learn new words? To sound impressive? If it’s the former, great. Find a word and look it up in the dictionary. Better yet, look up how it is used in a sentence to make sure that it is being used in the same way you want to use it. But know that you are at risk of using a word that your audience will not have known before either.

If you use a thesaurus to sound impressive, let me take the pressure off your shoulders. Teachers most likely are not concerned about how many letters are in your words or how fancy they sound. What they are looking for is accuracy, clarity, and depth of thought. They are much more interested in what you have to say than in how you say it, so it’s okay to use the words you are comfortable with.

(Note that I have used the word “used” multiple times in the last two paragraphs. That’s okay! I don’t need to pull out the thesaurus so I can replace them with words like “utilize” or “employ” or “adopt” to sound more fancy. That would actually be pretty annoying, wouldn’t it?)

There is a third reason to use a Thesaurus that I think is more helpful, and that is for recalling words you can’t remember. Sometimes I’m writing and realize—for instance—that I’ve used the word “pleasure” ten times. I know there is another way to say it, but I need a little help dislodging those words from my memory. So I look up “pleasure” in the Thesaurus and find words like “delight” and “happiness.” I also find words like “delectation,” “gluttony,” “diversion,” and “fruition.” I know that those latter words do not mean what I intend, so I go with the words that I do know and understand.

In Culmination 

Thesauruses can be helpful in the right settings in helping you recall words or even learn some new words with the help of a dictionary, but make sure you are using words that fit your meaning and your own voice.

Self-Editing Techniques

Everyone Edits

While we at the writing center are here to help you revise your papers, it’s always a good practice to review your work before turning it in no matter how good of a writer you are.   Sometimes not worrying about surface level errors is a great way to let your thoughts flow when drafting, so going back to edit is necessary to making sure your ideas are clear and free of mistakes or errors.

Revising Content First

Revising and editing are two different things. Editing looks at sentence-level errors such as grammar, punctuation, syntax, and formatting. Doing this first would only lead to frustration later if you decide to remove or re-write a fully polished paragraph. Revising happens when you look at the paper as a whole, make sure everything flows coherently and follows the guidelines you have been given as well as the goals you set for yourself, and then make changes to the content.

Use Your Rubric 

If you professor has given you a rubric, use it! Lay it beside your paper and check off items you have gotten right. If something is off, mark it and make the edits.

If you don’t have a rubric, use any other material your teacher has given you, including your own notes. Or, you can write down what you know should be included (i.e. a thesis, topic sentences, conclusion, etc.) and compare your paper to that.

Reverse Outlining 

This is one of my favorite techniques, and it can be done in many ways. I like to read over a hard copy of my paper and write down on another sheet of paper (or in the margins) my thesis and the topic or topic sentence of each paragraph. Whether or not I tried to follow an outline from the onset, whatever I write through my reading is my new outline. Next, I ask the following questions:

  1. Does every paragraph match the thesis? If not, should I adjust the paragraphs, or should I add to the thesis?
  2. Is every paragraph or topic necessary? Is there anything to cut?
  3. Does every paragraph contain one topic?
  4. Is anything missing that should be added?
  5. Does my conclusion sufficiently reflect on all of the points?

Sentence-level Edits

Print the Paper 

If you can, print the paper double-sided or even on the back of used sheets to save trees. You are far more likely to catch errors and look at your paper as a whole if you are holding a physical copy and reading carefully with a pen in your hand.

Read Out Loud 

Our minds have a way of subconsciously correcting sentences, putting words and letters and even punctuation where it should be without realizing that something is missing. Reading out loud slows down the process, enabling you to catch the tiny errors that you might skip over if reading silently. Reading aloud may also help you hear where commas need to be added for pauses.*

Utilize the Internet 

If you are not sure about a grammatical or formatting issue, look it up. With so many resources at our fingertips, we shouldn’t be guessing whether or not we should use a semicolon. Each thing you look up could be something you won’t have to look up next time. Of course, it’s hard to remember all those rules, and I still look things up constantly to make sure my writing is correct.

Conclusion 

Self-editing is not just for struggling writers. Everyone–even J.K. Rowling–must edit their writing.

As usual, the Writing Center is here to help you in every stage of the writing process. Feel free to set up an appointment or stop by any time!

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*Disclaimer: Don’t believe the idea that commas go wherever you pause. Commas are used, rather, to separate phrases.