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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

“Red, the blood of angry pens; black, the marks of mistakes past…”

by Abby Ponder 

For almost all writers, editing is a fundamental aspect of the writing process. Without it, mistakes can be glossed over and points can remain unrefined. And while in a lot of cases editing is no one’s idea of a good time, it certainly doesn’t have to be the nightmare most people make it out to be.

Whenever I’m writing, my first draft is, to put it rather bluntly, a bit rough. Actually, it’s more than a bit; it’s generally so rough that I almost always refuse to let anyone else even glance at it. My first draft is usually a compilation of various outlines (a step outlined in a recent post) that have been tossed together into an assortment of paragraphs that are usually long and rambling with very little cohesion. It’s something resembling a paper, but it’s not there yet. Like I said, these initial drafts are rough–but that’s okay.

Anne Lamott, most known for her novel Bird by Bird which highlights tips for successful writers of all genres, has a chapter in the aforementioned novel called “Shitty First Drafts.” In the chapter, Lamott explains that a first draft is just that: a first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it is a starting point. The whole point of the first draft is to get words and ideas on paper, after all, and that is almost always the hardest part of writing: you have all these fantastic ideas, but you might not have a specific place to start or a way to tie them all together. However, between the help of your outline and your “shitty first draft,” you’ll begin to have an idea come together and slowly but surely that idea will begin to blossom.

So, after you’ve written that first draft, some people write another one… and then maybe another one after that. I know that I usually go through several drafts before I am finally satisfied.

My British Fantasy Literature paper rocking some Les Miserables lyrics, as one naturally does.
For example, I took a class last fall where I had to write a paper breaking down the concept of love in works of British Fantasy Literature. (Harry Potter was, unsurprisingly, incorporated into this assignment.) However, even though I intimately knew the subject matter, there were still a number of changes that needed to be made. A friend of mine helped me to put the editing process in perspective, made me take a step back and laugh at it, and the break from the seriousness was a tremendous help.
Editing, in my experience, is mostly about taking that step back and examining what the words staring back at you are trying to say. It’s akin to reading another person: they’re trying to say something, but it is up to you to decipher the meaning.
There are two things that I have found incredibly helpful in the editing process: (1) printing off the paper, and (2) reading it out loud.
While it is easy enough to edit a paper on the computer (and, admittedly, it does save some on printing costs), there is something about editing a paper on, well, paper that makes a huge difference. People tend to be more inclined to skim when reading online, and consequently it can be very easy to skip over the small mistakes–especially when you’re not on the hunt for a misplaced pronoun or a comma splice. When you print the paper out and literally put pen to paper, you’ll be surprised at how many things you see. And, like with my paper above, there is a sense of accomplishment that comes from seeing a marked up paper. Sure, it means you still have a ways to go, but it also symbolizes progress, and progress is never a bad thing.
Next, reading the text to yourself (or another person) can alter your perception of the words. Reading aloud forces you to interact with the paper and actively think about both the content and the style. Additionally, most people have a tendency to catch any misplaced words or confusing phrases when they’re hearing or speaking them. What sounds good in your head may not always work out loud, and this step can do a lot in terms of drawing attention to that.
Just make sure that whenever it seems like too much, and you feel as though you can’t make sense of the words anymore, take a break. Sometimes you need to give your brain some room to breath, and then you can come back ready to get back to work.
Comic by Debbie Ohi.
When you feel like you’re finished, though, or even if you’re stumped along the way, don’t forget to utilize the WKU Writing Center. While we are not an editing service, we will help walk you through any bumps in the road you may be having. Sometimes it’s nice to have a second opinion on things, too.
As always, you can schedule an appointment by clicking here and selecting a time that works well for you. We are also available for drop-in appointments, but those function under a first come, first serve basis.

Happy Writing!

This post was originally published on October 20, 2014.