Grammar Check: The Comma Splice

How To Avoid This Common Error.

What is incorrect about the sentence below? 

Bob was late for work, he hoped he wouldn’t be fired.

You are correct if you guessed that the comma is used incorrectly. It is a comma splice.

What is a comma splice?

A comma splice is two independent clauses (complete sentences) joined by a comma.

In the example above, “Bob was late for work” and “he hoped he wouldn’t be fired” can each stand on its own as a complete sentence.  

What are some ways to rewrite the sentence in order to correct it?

1. Use a period: Bob was late for work. He hoped he wouldn’t be fired.

2. Use a semicolon: Bob was late for work; he hoped he wouldn’t be fired.

3. Make one of the clauses dependent on the other: Bob was late for work, and he hoped he wouldn’t be fired.

Wait. Stop. What is the difference between an independent and a dependent clause?

An independent clause is simply part of a sentence that can be, on its own, a complete sentence. It is independent.

A dependent clause is not a complete sentence. It is dependent upon another part of the sentence. It tends to provide additional meaning to the independent clause.

Now look at the corrections:

In the first example, when I used a period rather than a comma, I corrected the problem by turning each independent clause into its own sentence.

In the second example I chose a semicolon. A semicolon implies a link between two independent clauses. The second independent clause (“he hoped he wouldn’t be fired”) is directly related to the first. In this case it is a result of it (“Bob was late for work”).

In the third example I made the second clause depend on the first.. “…and he hoped he wouldn’t be fired” is not a complete sentence. It is a dependent clause joined to the independent clause. This method can imply an even greater link between the two clauses than either a period or a semicolon.

It’s easy to remember! Look at your comma placement. Is it between two complete sentences? If so, it is a comma splice!

Is it ever acceptable to use a comma splice? Feel free to ask me!

I will address other uses and misuses of the comma in future posts.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Susan Blair March 19, 2013 at 09:35 PM
You may want to look in the NY Times archives for William Safire's "On Language" column article titled "The Wicked Which and the Comma," one of my favorite explanations of which vs. that. It was published some time in the 1980s, I think.
Jen Senft March 20, 2013 at 01:26 PM
Thank you very much for your comment. I covered three main ways to fix a comma splice. One is by adding a coordinating conjunction (I chose "and," which is one of the seven coordinating conjunctions). Your sentence, which removes the word "he," also solves the problem. A discussion of whether or not to begin a sentence with the word "and" is a topic large enough for a separate post.
Jen Senft April 03, 2013 at 12:56 PM
Hi Mark - I'm not sure whether or not you saw my post about pluralizing names? I also plan to write about possessives; a number of people wrote to me about trouble with possessives after my post about pluralizing (also see my it's/its post) Thank you for reading!
Matthew Miranda May 17, 2013 at 08:31 AM
I teach college writing, and without peer the trickiest skill my students struggle to master is correct comma use. Often when we break down where they're using commas incorrectly, we find that they're punctuating their writing the way they hear the spoken word in their minds...which is often only a rough translation of what they've heard in their ears. There's a dissertation to be written about the semantics of comma errors.
Jen Senft May 17, 2013 at 01:36 PM
Thank you for commenting! I recently read an article from a reputable source, which of course I cannot recall, that argued in favor of using commas where one would naturally sense a pause — the horror! I wish I could find it, but Google returned about 25,000 results.


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