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.