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.



  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.



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.


“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.







Grammar blogs you should be following

If you write anything (even if you think you don’t write, you do) or say anything, no matter the medium or situation, expressing your point and clearly communicating with your audience is important. Good grammar is an essential tool in doing so; grammar provides the rules that make what we say and write make sense. If you want to be a better reader, writer, speaker, listener, and communicator, here are the grammar blogs you should be following:

Grammar Girl

Grammar Girl is famous for her Quick and Dirty Tips ™ that define exactly what you need to know about a given grammatical situation. Not sure whether to say “bad” or “badly”? Need to know how to use a semicolon? Grammar Girl can tell you. In addition to the tips, Grammar Girl also has a fun and informative podcast.


Quick, easily consumable articles on grammar, usage, words and phrases, spelling, and style. It also has English and ESL resources and games. The games may be for kids; however, the games may also be kind of fun. We cannot confirm this (wink, wink).


In addition to their writing products, which include the free Grammarly spellcheck browser extension we’ve mentioned in a previous post, Grammarly has an informative blog on grammar and writing situations (because they’re super good at content marketing). Past topics include how to tell the difference between adjectives and adverbs, how to use good grammar in online dating, and fun quizzes like “Are You a Grammar Troll?” (Turns out, I’m a pedantic grammar troll…)

Merriam-Webster’s Twitter

This isn’t actually a blog, but Merriam-Webster shares a lot of great and timely articles on grammar and word use on their Twitter account. Also, m-w hilariously trolls the frequent misuse and abuse of words by our country’s most visible politicians.

The WKU Writing Center blog:

We post things about grammar, and we’re big proponents of self-promotion.

If you have questions about grammar and would like to learn how to identify the patterns of grammatical error in your writing, the Writing Center can help! Visit the Writing Center today or set up an appointment online. We’re open from 9 AM to 4 PM in 123 Cherry Hall and 4 PM to 9 PM in the Academic Commons in Cravens, Monday through Thursday (9 AM to 3 PM in 123 Cherry Hall on Fridays).

Verb tenses

Lately, many tutors in the Writing Center have noticed students coming in with papers that display issues with verb tense. In this post, I will go over the basic verb tenses and how and when to use each.

There are six basic tenses in English, but only past and present require a change to the spelling of the verb. The others add a word or words (auxiliaries) to create the desired tense. The six tenses are simple present, present perfect, simple past, past perfect, future, andfuture perfect.

Simple Present
Verb: to walk

  • I walk.
  • You walk.
  • He/she/it walks.
  • We walk.
  • They walk.

Simple present is the most basic verb tense. It is used to describe something that is happening in the present, i.e. right now. Note the difference in the conjugation for he, she, and it. Instead of “walk,” the verb is “walks.” This is because “he, she, and it” are in the singular form, while “they,” for instance, is plural.

Present Perfect
Verb: to jump

  • I have jumped.
  • You have jumped.
  • He/she/it has jumped.
  • We have jumped.
  • They have jumped.

The present perfect tense is used to describe completed actions that have consequences in the present. While the jump in the examples happened in the past, something about them is affecting the present state of the speaker. Again, note the singular form for he, she, and it.

Simple Past
Verb: to talk

  • I talked.
  • You talked.
  • He/she/it talked.
  • We talked.
  • They talked.

The simple past is the basic form of past tense. It is used to describe something that was completed in the past and is not happening now. Conjugations are the same for all subjects.

Past Perfect
Verb: to wash

  • I had washed.
  • You had washed.
  • He/she/it had washed.
  • We had washed.
  • They had washed.

The past perfect tense is used when describing an event in the past that happened before other events in the past, as in I had woken up just before my alarm went off. Conjugations are the same for all subjects.

Verb: to go

  • I will go.
  • You will go.
  • He/she/it will go.
  • We will go.
  • They will go.

The future tense is used to describe something that has not happened but will happen in the future. In the examples, the subjects have not gone yet, but they are planning to go. Conjugations are the same for all subjects.

Future Perfect
Verb: to see

  • I will have seen.
  • You will have seen.
  • He/she/it will have seen.
  • We will have seen.
  • They will have seen.

The future perfect tense is used to describe something that will have happened by a certain time or point in the future, as in I will have seen the Great Wall of China by the time I am old. Conjugations are the same for all subjects.

In academic writing, it is important to remember when to use each tense. Present tenses are used to describe events that are currently happening, while past tenses are used to describe events that have already happened and future tenses are used to describe events that are going to happen. In most academic work, it is important to remain consistent in your verb tense throughout the paper, usually sticking to either all past or all present tense. However, it is acceptable to interchange the tenses when speaking about separate events that happened in either the past or the present–it is not acceptable, though, to change the tense within the same sentence. It is also important to remember that when writing about literature, you must always refer to the events of the text in the present tense. This is because those events will still be taking place in the text any time the reader looks at it. Those events never end because the text is in a constant state of existence.

We hope this helps clear up any confusion about verb tenses, but if you ave any questions, please stop by and see us in the Writing Center. We would be more than happy to assist you. You can also visit the “verb tenses” link in the first paragraph for more help.

Happy First Day of Spring!


This post was originally published on March 20, 2014.