Not every writer or author is forged with the basics of the English language. We all grow up learning the rigors of grammar, but sometimes our training falls by the wayside. We read books, we write, we talk, we listen to the patterns of normal human speech, we read more books, and we pick up bad habits along the way. I sure did.
But as it turns out, at least when it comes to book publishing, mechanics and grammar still matter. Quite a lot. If you want to sell a manuscript or become a professional copyeditor, the best way to achieve your goals is to get back to basics.
FIRST STEP: OWN YOUR MISTAKE
Sentence structure is one of those key basics, and one of my most common sentence-structure errors was the dreaded comma splice. At some point along the way, I picked up this nasty habit. In my writing brain, the one rushing to get all the words down on paper, it just sounded right. But what sounds correct in our heads isn’t always what reads well on the page. So I’m here to confess to my comma-splicing crimes and help everyone else who’s guilty of comma splicing learn the error of their ways before it’s too late. Just kidding—it’s never too late to learn something new or relearn something old.
SECOND STEP: RECOGNIZE AND REPAIR
A comma splice is when a comma is used to connect two independent clauses. A clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a finite verb, and an independent clause is a clause that can stand as a complete sentence. This means comma splicing is piecing together two separate sentences using only a comma. It’s not the end of the world, but it is bad grammar.
Here’s an example of a comma splice:
This is a comma splice, it can be hard to recognize if you aren’t looking for it.
Now, how does something like this get fixed? As with many writing faux pas, there are usually several solutions.
- Add a coordinating conjunction between the two independent clauses. Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor, yet) join words, phrases, or clauses.
This is a comma splice, but it can be hard to recognize if you aren’t looking for it.
- Add a subordinate conjunction. A subordinate conjunction (although, as, because, if, since, so, that, unless, while) typically joins dependent clauses to independent clauses but can also be used in this instance.
This is a comma splice, although it can be hard to recognize if you aren’t looking for it.
- Change the comma to a semicolon. A semicolon is a punctuation mark (;) indicating a pause, typically between two independent clauses, that is much more pronounced than the pause indicated by a comma.
This is a comma splice; it can be hard to recognize if you aren’t looking for it.
- Change the comma to a period. A period is a punctuation mark (.) indicating that the sentence has ended.
This is a comma splice. It can be hard to recognize if you aren’t looking for it.
THIRD STEP: RESOURCES
In the heat of writing, and especially in the rush to meet a deadline, it can still be challenging to find those pesky comma splices hiding among the shining pearls of otherwise perfectly formed sentences. And maybe, as in my case, those are the grammatical issues you are most blind to: the sort of natural errors that your editorial or revising eye just passes right over.
Luckily, there are resources to help sharpen that eye. For example, The Copyeditor’s Handbook and The Chicago Manual of Style can help you relearn all those pesky sentence-structure rules.
Once the studying is complete, then it’s time to move on to testing. There are several helpful online quizzes, but the best of the bunch were created by Northern Illinois University, the University of Bristol, and Villanova University.
Being guilty of using comma splices doesn’t make you a bad writer. But knowing how to recognize and revise these sentences before an editor gets hold of your manuscript will definitely make you a better writer.