John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Slice, dice

If you had an English class that actually tried to teach grammar and usage, and I’m probably talking to the over-forties out there, you probably heard many solemn warnings about — the horror, the horror — the comma-splice run-on sentence.*

But though I was trained in the Old Religion, there were always aspects that made me uneasy.

I saw that British writers turned out comma-splice sentences by the yard, with no embarrassment. They no longer own the language — 1776, we speak Amurrican, and all that — but still.

I saw that there is a figure of speech in classical rhetoric, asyndeton, that omits conjunctions between related clauses and thereby implicitly endorses comma splices: I came, I saw, I conquered.

I saw that in American fiction comma-splice sentences represent the loosely connected clauses of colloquial speech in a way that more formal punctuation would make, well, more formal.

And now I have seen, on Stan Carey’s Sentence first blog, a nuanced and sensible account of acceptable uses of the comma splice: “Oh, the Splices You’ll See!”

Commenting on the hard-line prohibition on comma splices that can be found in many texts on grammar and usage, he says:

This kind of advice can be helpful to learners, or writers who want a quick yes–no answer. But it also tends to be simplistic and misleading, failing to reflect the subtlety and complexity with which skilled writers consciously use comma splices. Moreover, when authorities dismiss certain techniques out of hand without mentioning the breadth of their usage in various stylistic and historical contexts, they can perpetuate fear of making mistakes and ignorance of how language works.

Now before anyone can start shouting that the linguists and lexicographers, those insidious descriptivists, have eaten my brain, let me point out that Mr. Carey quotes approvingly one of my fellow moderate prescriptivists:

Bryan Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, summarises as follows: “Most usage authorities accept comma splices when (1) the clauses are short and closely related, (2) there is no danger of a miscue, and (3) the context is informal.”

Of the uses of the comma splice, Mr. Carey says:

[C]omma splices are often fine, but they create a noticeably casual effect that is widely considered ill-suited to contexts such as essays, reports, and business writing. They are seldom seen in news reporting except for rare appearances in dialogue, where they can serve to convey an informal speaking tone ... [o]r removed altogether, leaving run-on sentences that lend a breathless, stream-of-consciousness effect. ...

Nuance in usage in hard to teach, especially when students come so ill-prepared in formal grammar. I will continue to caution my students about the dangers of a “breathless, stream-of-consciousness effect” in their writing, and about the appearance of sloppiness. But in this matter, as in so many others, I must continue to edge away from flat prohibitions.

*My students at Loyola have no such fears. Though they, like most Americans, shrink from the semicolon as a horse shies from a snake, they pull out the comma-grinder and sprinkle the contents generously over all their texts.


  1. MichiganCityDDSMay 2, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., also disliked the semicolon. Look it up.

  2. The one problem with multiple splices (you exhibit a good specimen above) is that while they certainly work, they tend to become visually and rhythmically rather monotonous; far better to vary the cadence by use of commas, parenthetical remarks and, yes, the (for incomprehensible reasons) shunned semicolon, so that the sentence flows better for ear and eye alike.

  3. If I had one piece of advice to hand out to those still grappling with basic sentence mechanics it would be to belay the instinct to put in a comma at all. I see comma splices among those who seem to have basic sentences down. But for many, I would worry less about comma splices than about such things as subjects and verbs separated by commas, both randomly and as incomplete apposition. (Not sure if there's a name for this type of usage -- "decorative commas," perhaps?)

    PS and FWIW, I must say that reading legal documents is an exercise in biting ye olde editorial tongue w/r/t comma usage. Bit of a problem when one is obliged to drop legal boilerplate into a document otherwise punctuated satisfactorily. :-)

  4. I've actually banned semicolons. I have found three students in my 15 years of teaching who actually know how to use a semicolon. The students like to put in a comma when it feels good.

  5. Seldom has one of your posts elevated my blood pressure so. To me, a comma splice smacks, not of informality, but of ignorance about the English language. Because you are the expert, I'd like to ask: Where do you draw the line between the "nuances" of informality and of being uneducated?

  6. Case by case, in context, considering the readership, like any editor.

  7. Careful, John. Someone out there will want you to say "as any editor."

  8. Stephen DaedalusMay 3, 2010 at 12:08 AM

    MK: In other words, whichever way the wind blows...Don;t you get it? He is the sole arbiter. If you try to pull a rule, he holds up his cloak of invisibility. If you violate a rule, he's on you like a bad sunburn. "Case by case, in context, considering the readership, like any editor." It's pernicious descriptivism by God--he denies it--but there it is. The rules are silly putty--As is his argument that he glides along a thin coating of "style" mucus through the prescriptivist world... It's all smoke and mirrors. Now, God help us, he's back at The Sun to torment those unwitting kids with this shillyshallying and will probably have the power to fire said young 'un scribes. (Notice how he dodged the question about hiring/firing powers in this here self-same blog...) Just the way he was treated last year...terrible, terrible. Key question in the interview to be rehired: "Are you willing to kill and eat your dead?"

  9. As an English teacher who has taught grammar and usage for thirty years, I have to weigh in here.

    People should know the rules before attempting to break them. If students can show proficiency in, say, comma rules, they can use comma splices for rhetorical effect.

    Teachers (and editors) can usually tell whether a writer knows what he is doing.

    P.S. In John's use of "like an editor," "like" is a preposition and is used correctly. "As" is a subordinate conjunction and would be needed only if it were followed by a clause.

  10. Mott the HoopleMay 3, 2010 at 7:27 PM

    Charles Matthews is correct.
    The construction at the end of John's statement is a subordinate clause.
    The verb "does" is understood, as in:
    "Case by case, in context, considering the readership, (as) any editor (does)."
    If the word like introduced a simile, you'd be correct, but John is not drawing a metaphorical relationship between himself and editors.

  11. Christoper:
    By banning semicolons, you're practicing malpractice just as surely as someone who bans the comma splice. Our jobs as teachers are to give students as wide a range of tools as possible - and the knowledge to use them properly.