Oh, the Splices You’ll See!

I am such a good man, at bottom, such a good man, how is it that nobody ever noticed it? – Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

In a previous post I explained what comma splices are, and how and when to avoid them. Now I’d like to share a few more examples of their appearance in edited text (they are spliced into this post), and to discuss some of the advice and commentary on their use.

I had worn the wrong shoes, they had heels. – Moy McCrory, The Wrong Vocation

The blue, igloo-roof over the rock went away to a vast distance, the visible world expanded with a leap. – William Golding, Pincher Martin

Some people describe comma splices as an error, a horror, a nightmare, an insult — something terrible, to be dreaded and denounced. We are urged to spurn them, to expunge them swiftly and severely as though they were insidious “germs” in our otherwise unsullied text. Even when they are acknowledged to be occasionally acceptable, we are advised to avoid them to be on the safe side. “[O]nly do it if you’re famous,” Lynne Truss suggests. Leave it to the experts.

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.

Apes have flat feet, we have sprung arches. – Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

Don’t get excited and rush around accusing people of stealing your Corona, just relax. – James Thurber, The Pleasure Cruise, and How to Survive It

My throat is dry, I can hardly swallow.James Brown, The L.A. Diaries

There’s no clearer indication of this intolerance than the fact that comma splices are also known as comma errors, comma faults, and comma blunders. Yet they were not always considered ungrammatical; this is a relatively recent development. Current convention holds that they are inappropriate for many formal contexts, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Robert Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, comments that “wide variation can be seen in the work of many contemporary writers and, even more so, in that of earlier centuries. . . . this habit of writing comma-joined sentences is not uncommon in both older and present-day fiction.” Non-fiction, too:

We saw Bob’s cousins Denny and Donny, they live outside Las Vegas where they race cars on weekends. – Garrison Keillor

A self can contain or be contained by something that is either less or more than a self, it can never contain or be contained by a self. – Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Morality is a sickness peculiar to humans, the good life is a refinement of the virtues of animals. – John Gray, Straw Dogs

The variations are infinite, the formula remains the same. – Arthur Koestler, Janus.

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.” I don’t have as many usage books as Mr Garner, but I’ll quote from a few that are close at hand.

The Fowler brothers, masters of the blunt put-down, write that “among the signs that more particularly betray the uneducated writer is inability to see when a comma is not a sufficient stop” (The King’s English). Despite this forbidding survey, they note that it is “roughly true that grammatically independent sentences should be parted by at least a semicolon; but […] there are very large exceptions to this”.

The next day, several commanders came to Ender or sent soldiers to tell him not to worry, most of them thought the extra practice sessions were a good idea, he should keep it up. – Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

He must grow, I must disappear. – Hermann Hesse, The Journey to the East

The causes don’t matter, the enemy can be anybody. – Anthony Burgess, 1985

It was dark black water, secret, and the air was filled with murmurings and rustlings, it was as if they were walking into another world that had been kept secret from everyone and now they had found it. Daphne Du Maurier, The Pool

One of the Fowlers’ natural heirs, Ernest Gowers, took a hard line on comma splices. In The Complete Plain Words, he described as “incorrect” the use of commas “between two independent sentences not linked by a conjunction” — except when there are more than two independent sentences, and a conjunction links the last two, e.g. “Dogs bark, sheep bleat, and cows moo” (cf. asyndeton).

Gowers’s book was intended to improve official English, so his guidance need not be taken to apply across the board. Poets can relax: comma use owes more to context and personal taste than the stricter grammarians might have us believe. Even The Elements of Style allows for exceptions, albeit stingily: “If the clauses are very short, and are alike in form, a comma is usually permissible.”

People with ASD can certainly become angry and upset, they are not robots. – Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music

But she couldn’t go to stay with them for the first time in this predicament, it would be ridiculous. – Maeve Binchy, Shepherd’s Bush

“Your reason is on safe ground, all the elements of the tonal are on its side.” – Carlos Casteneda, Tales of Power

The marines were elated that the amateur smut had made it past the censors, it was another coup! – Anthony Swofford, Jarhead

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English tells us that “edited English almost never lets commas splices through, so we seldom see them in print”, but that “in fiction, poetry, and other imaginative literary forms you may occasionally encounter comma faults used deliberately to create special effects such as informality or another mood”. Italics are the author’s own: note the use of the prejudicial term “comma fault”.

The more descriptivist Pocket Guide to English Usage from Merriam-Webster refers to comma splices as “fairly common in casual and unedited prose”. Some books, such as the next two quoted, positively teem with comma splices:

They were nothing like the gulls and terns, their black-and-white had a special air, they went a little beyond being birds. Russell Hoban, Turtle Diary

Claire’s tears had stopped but stood unwiped, she seemed not to have noticed them. – John Banville, The Sea

I know how it is with him, that’s why I never bother saying much. – Leonora Brito, Body and Soul

He saw no individuals, he was conscious of a froth of pink faces, of waving arms and garments, he felt the occult influence of a vast crowd pouring over him, buoying him up.H. G. Wells, When the Sleeper Wakes

Far from being a literary evil, then, comma 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:

“There are no niceties in Klingon, I think that’s why a lot of people like it, it’s very straightforward.” – BBC News.

“The wireless-transmission efficiency is never better than a copper wire, that is not possible” – Wall Street Journal (via Literary Legs)

“It’s wonderful news to hear of a resighting of this animal, where it’s heading is the burning question” – BBC, Earth News.

Or removed altogether, leaving run-on sentences that lend a breathless, stream-of-consciousness effect:

“Usually fish are in the water now they are falling out of the sky what if anything bigger falls out of the sky next?” – The Telegraph (via The Engine Room)

[Post title is a reference to this wonderful book.]

* * *

Updates: John E. McIntyre has added his thoughts on comma splices at his blog You Don’t Say. Mr McIntyre is a self-described (and thoroughly sensible) moderate prescriptivist with considerable editing experience, so his insights are most welcome.

Lane Greene revisits the subject at the Economist‘s language blog, Johnson. He has sworn off splices since his English teacher “marked down any paper with even a single comma splice by two letter grades”, and he concludes that it’s “probably not worth the readers it will irritate”. I disagree, but his point is well made.

I’ve spliced in a few more comma splices, and I’m probably not finished with this. Lots more below:

Miss Doreen Valvona was a good reader, she had the best eyes in the ward. – Muriel Spark, Memento Mori

I washed this by hand, it looks like new. – Alice Munro, The Peace of Utrecht

But it is already obvious that one cannot study “the impassivity” of Keaton’s face by itself, one thing leads to another, the face leads to action and action leads to the body. – J.-P. Lebel, Buster Keaton

He told me it was my friend Koichiro, he was going to be at Galerie Coupe Chou in Shinjuku on Tuesday at eight with some friends, I should come by if I had time. – Barry Eisler, Rain Fall

His face is not angry, it does not have any expression.Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

He whined, sulked, was sick, demanded his grandmother, bit Lisa’s finger, disturbed other travellers with his screams. – D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel

Income taxes were cut, foreign companies were courted with massive tax breaks and the promise of light regulation. – Fintan O’Toole, Ship of Fools

A silence had fallen in on the three hillwalkers, it had a knuckly and mannish grip. – Kevin Barry, There Are Little Kingdoms

That little woman was probably right, it could be a matter of nerves, nerves are the very devil… – Jose Saramago, Blindness

He never goes out without us, of course, we can’t trust him to strangers. A. L. Kennedy, A Perfect Possession

Murphy’s respect for the imponderables of personality was profound, he took the miscarriage of his tribute very nicely. Samuel Beckett, Murphy

So often I forget something important, I just overlook it. – Alexander Luria, The Man with a Shattered World

No more is possible, no more is needed. – Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye

You don’t want your truck to break down, it can be dangerous. – John Updike, Terrorist

My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are grey faces that peer over my shoulder. – William Golding, Free Fall

His body has been preserved, it’s regarded as a miracle. – Ken Bruen, London Boulevard

That’s what comes from seventeen years of being married, I knew that the motion meant that the drugs were on a small ledge behind some recessed lights we had installed inside a wall bench at the entrance to the bedroom. – Nicholas Pileggi, Wiseguy

The sun was down, only the upper sky glowed. – Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower

Orvie was being very helpful, he organized dances and games, he had passed plates of chicken and ice cream, he danced with some of the more awful wives. – Edna Ferber, Come and Get It

The snow banked high against the lodge, only the upper panes of the windows admitted a gray light. – Thomas Harris, Hannibal Rising

There was a prim little worktable with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk, there was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.Agatha Christie, Sleeping Murder

I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t. – Carl Jung, in a letter to James Joyce

There are other options, it’s only midnight. – John O’Brien, Leaving Las Vegas

The windows overlooking the Quays now shut, the barge looked uninhabited. – Anaïs Nin, Under a Glass Bell

We still have our old big dog, he is eight years old. – C. S. Lewis, in a letter to his godchild

It was a shabby hotel, the yellow-washed walls needed a coat of paint as they hadn’t been done since the time De Valera came to that village during the election campaign five years before. – Edna O’Brien, Irish Revel

The noises terrified me, I had heard nothing like it before. – Simon Yates, Against the Wall

I must construct this home as a symbol, whether I live in it or not is not important, it is enough that it is here, but there is no heart to it, of course. – Gore Vidal, in a letter to Anaïs Nin, quoted in her journals.

We’ve got a foundation for the argument, now we need a solid framework. – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, example sentence in Metaphors We Live By

Brodie’s disapproval of the Girl Guides had jealousy in it, there was an inconsistency, a fault. – Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

There are no personal possessions now, there are no inheritances. – Jorges Luis Borges, Utopia of a tired man

I didn’t know his family name or what he had done, I only knew that he was dead. – Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

I don’t think the bromide had any lasting effect, the only way to stop a British soldier feeling randy is to load bromide into a 300 lb shell and fire it at him from the waist down. – Spike Milligan, “Rommel?” “Gunner Who?”

This simple need is forgotten, what passes for simple prose nowadays is a mechanical stringing together of stereotyped word-groups, without regard for the images contained in them. – Robert Graves, The White Goddess

By the time I saw it, there wasn’t much of it left, even the doors were missing. – Anne Enright, The Gathering

He had always had plenty of friends, he would have met with a friendly reception in almost every town in the region. – Hermann Hesse, Knulp

But you still lead during this, the guide does not lead under these circumstances. – John C. Lilly, The Centre of the Cyclone

He was alone, that was the outstanding fact. – Algernon Blackwood, The Valley of the Beasts

But he wasnay really worried about it, whether one way or the other, as long as he kept the concentraion going, that was the fucking main thing, no letting the head wander. – James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late

I just haven’t felt like a haircut for a while, there’s nothing else to my hairdo but that. – Daniel Woodrell, Give Us A Kiss

I had never eaten kidneys, mother was prejudiced against them. – Ita Daly, Ellen

There’s much too little snow on the ground this year, everything is bare ice. – Peter Habeler, Everest: Impossible Victory

This is the zone we know best, it is the one in which our heads, and the Stevenson screens that hold most of our weather-recording instruments, lie. – Lyall Watson, Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind

The sun moved over the tree and down, the shadow of the leaves crept back towards the bole. – William Golding, Clonk Clonk

In myth, the tripartite pattern of signifier, signified, and sign has a double function, it not only “makes us understand something . . . it imposes it on us” (Barthes, p. 102). – Debra Merskin, Truly Toffee and Raisin Hell: A Textual Analysis of Lipstick Names

People would see them, she didn’t care. – William Trevor, Love and Summer

Pellig ignored the terrified workers and skimmed on, his feet barely touched the floor. – Philip K. Dick, Solar Lottery

Rain weighed the pewter sky, the wind blew damp and constant. – Jeff Abbott, Panic

Knowledge of word-meaning grows, it undergoes development and change. – Margaret Donaldson, Children’s Minds

The sense of necessity – that famously ambiguous master – relieves me from small trepidations, the Big Fear supplants small ones of adolescence. – Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation

On the sea a single vertical white line is highlighted against the pink skyline, this represents a sail. – Vanessa Potts, Monet

The escalators did not go up and down, they were only steps. – Russell Hoban, Kleinzeit

He had a couple of hit records, his TV show was big for a while. – James Ellroy, L. A. Confidential

But in a more fundamental way, there is nothing special about those particular universes, they are each just the results of one of many equally likely combinations of cosmic coincidences. – John Gribbin, In Search of the Multiverse

Steel ships are magnetic, that is why they must swing to adjust their compasses. – George Griffith, The Raid of ‘Le Vengeur’

Her left foot sported a white pump, her right foot was bare. – Walter Mosley, White Butterfly

Dust rose, concealing everything, only the tops of the tall spears glittered. – Franz Kafka, The Knock at the Manor Gate

Conradin had been wont to chant his praises, tonight he asked a boon. – Saki (H. H. Munro), Sredni Vashtar

It is quite dark now, all of the cars have their headlights on, lighting his face briefly from different angles. – Keith Ridgway, ‘The Problem with German’, in Standard Time

That settled the question of her sanity, so far as I was concerned she hadn’t any. – Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse

It was the Master who had taught him how to guard sheep, it was he who had told the dog what to do and when to do it. – Joyce Marsh, The Shepherd’s Dog

The stories belong to a whole spectrum of reality, they do not mix with cults and bits and pieces. – Idries Shah, A Perfumed Scorpion

He’s working on the tendons of his other leg, Strauss is still performing his rapid-fire volleys. – Ian McEwan, Saturday

You cannot develop a personality with physics alone, the rest of life must be worked in. – Richard Feynman, Don’t You Have Time to Think?

There was the lace collar, there were the pink fingers. – Margaret Mahy, The Haunting

But they don’t know you, they don’t care. – Charles L. Grant, ‘Name That Tune’ (in Monsters In Our Midst)

She struggled to hold back the tears, she pressed her lips together, she choked down the sobs that still shook her chest. – Philip Pullman, Northern Lights

It was early, she was home. – Josephine Hart, Damage

They are presented as apprehended by a special kind of awareness, they are seen in the light of one fundamental experience. – J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven

I’ll watch any documentary which features them, I’ll read every book. – Antony Sher, ‘Eugene Terre’Blanche’, in Heroes and Villains: An Anthology of Animosity and Admiration

The mud didn’t dissolve in water, he had to scrape and rub at it with this fingers. – Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke

But I could see my own youngsters in Jamie, that’s why I ran. – Colum McCann, ‘As If There Were Trees’, in Silver Threads of Hope, edited by Sinéad Gleeson

They come back from America, they bring the slop bucket with them. – Harold Pinter, The Homecoming

Not while it was lit, of course, that would be uncomfortable. – Mark Forsyth, The Horologicon

“No,” said Picard, “the hill has tired me, it is nothing serious, please go on.” – William Kotzwinkle, Fata Morgana

They were the best of friends, they saved each other’s life countless times, they laughed and talked together over campfires long into the night. – Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

“And thank you very much for being so kind and listening, and for giving us this meal, it was really nice.” – Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass

But look, she’s young, sometimes I feel almost like a parent. – Ethan Coen, Gates of Eden

The idea that languages are maps is not literally true, it is a metaphor to indicate the fact that languages describe states of affairs, more or less, accurately. – F. H. George, Semantics

I don’t shake, I don’t whimper. – Nicola Barker, Five Miles From Outer Hope

“You can play on the slope, just watch out for the snakes.” – Robert Crais, Indigo Slam

“Clement looked into it, there’s no danger.” – Jonathan Lethem, Girl in Landscape

“We’ve had one major leak, we can’t afford to have another.” – Robert Crais, L.A. Requiem

His face was blank, nothing registered with him, he did not see what was happening. – Keith Ridgway, The Long Falling

The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner ‘state’ in which the thinking comes to pass. – William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

God is great, we know not his ways. – Mark Rutherford, quoted by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience

He didn’t care, he’d miss it if he had to. – Michael Connelly, The Last Coyote

This was concerning, this was very concerning. – George Saunders, ‘Tenth of December’

I doubt if they had seen a warthog before, it was certainly the first one which we had noticed near the dens. – Hugo van Lawick, Solo: The Story of an African Wild Dog

She can move through the woods like a shadow, you have to give her that. – Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

Wet leaves blew into my face, the lighthouse beam blinded me, the wind shrieked wildly in the telephone wires. – Claire Kilroy, Tenderwire

Mick and his wife looked at everything with astonishment, they had never seen such plates and dishes before, and didn’t think they could ever admire them enough, the very sight almost took away their appetites. – T. Crofton Croker, Irish Folk Stories for Children

I had almost forgotten Yuriko, it was the first time I had thought of her in years. – Deirdre Madden, Remembering Light and Stone

He has one value, there is no single place that you can think of in the four parts of the wheel of the world that the black horse will not take you there. – from ‘The Black Horse’, in Celtic Fairy Tales, ed. by Joseph Jacobs

Her reflection wasn’t sharply defined, the edges were blurred. – Michael Scott, Vampyre

But David wasn’t really a fighter, that side of him was kept under. – John Clay, R. D. Laing: A Divided Self

They wore their winter coats of grey, their rumps were pure white. – John Wyatt, The Shining Levels

The hawk turned and skated off down the wind and vanished beyond the cape of the mountain, a single feather fell. – Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

She was thin, her hair was wild and dry, her eyes staring. – China Miéville, Un Lun Dun

Mrs Constanza happened to be shopping there at the same time, what a coincidence. – Alison Dye, The Sense of Things

The birds kept still as if in exhaustion, the jungle did not stir, it was like a muggy July afternoon above fields of ripe grain shimmering in the heat. – Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless

The corpse no longer bled from its numerous wounds, the heart had ceased to beat. – Stanisław Lem, The Star Diaries

Most of these women did not leave the men in their lives, they engaged in constructive strategies of resistance. – bell hooks, All About Love

The rest probably did not realise how important such a moment could be, they did not appreciate it. – Brian Masters, The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer

“Corbett’s reputation is sound enough, so is Pym’s,” he said almost to himself… – Patrick O’Brian, The Mauritius Command

It was too soon, he began struggling again. – Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child

Some had eyes on stalks, some had what might have been as many as sixteen legs. – Stephen King, The Gunslinger

“I’ll have our team there at eight, we can go over what we’ve got and take it from there.” – Michael Connelly, Angels Flight

He repeatedly claims that transfer occurred on a one to one basis, sound A in Irish is transferred and substitutes sound B in English. – Raymond Hickey, ‘Lenition in Irish English’

“I have an aunt living there, she has quite a bit of money, she invited me over after my mother died.” – Brian Moore, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes

Entering the studio, he moved along the east wall, looking for the outline of a door, the parted drapes admitted enough light for him to see. – Richard Matheson, Earthbound

“No one ever calls you back, they don’t reply to letters.” – Declan Hughes, The Dying Breed

“I had trouble getting to sleep, there were Hell’s Angels partying upstairs.” – Lawrence Block, Hit List

He wasn’t like anyone I knew, his face was long and had a grey colour. – Edna O’Brien, Girl With Green Eyes

Sometimes one of these magazines morphs into the mainstream and an actual paycheck, sometimes one of them sinks without a trace. – Marcus Boon, in the foreword to Nomad Codes by Erik Davis

His name was Edward Hutchins, he was English, he was fifty-four. – Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby

That the two were more or less conscious rivals for Rissner’s confidence was undeniable and inevitable, if only because of proximity, that they were no less motivated toward upward mobility that any young executives anywhere seems evident from their career histories. – Steven Bach, Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate

They let you do that in honours, you were much freer. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Jesus rubbed his knuckles in his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to clear his sight. – John Crace, Quarantine

He was dark, small, ferocious, the light in his eyes was primitive, he was more Spanish than French, more Latin than Gallic. – Oliver La Farge, ‘La Spécialité de M. Duclos’

“She doesn’t want to go back there, she doesn’t want to remember.” – Declan Hughes, All the Dead Voices

I kept thinking of the others, they must have reached the top of the hill ages ago. – Niccolò Ammaniti, I’m Not Scared

We have health and safety laws which force companies to comply with regulations, we don’t leave it up to them to decide. – Mark Thomas, As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela

He never told him how he’d located him, he just called. – Harlan Ellison, ‘Shatterday’

Increasingly it seems to me that the strength of American sf is the short story, the strength of British sf is the novel. – Peter Nicholls, ‘1975: The Year in Science Fiction’, from Nebula Award Stories, edited by Ursula K. Le Guin

“They might continue to evolve, they might degenerate, they might conflict to the point of destruction or gross modification of any or all of them.” – Roger Zelazny, Home is the Hangman

Broken panes of glass that had been patched up with bits of timber were replaced, sometimes a whole new window was installed. – Alice Taylor, To School Through the Fields

“It’s a romance picture, the girls like that.” – George Pelecanos, The Big Blowdown

Less culpably, but no less tellingly, the National Economic and Social Council pointed out soon after the crash that Ireland did not have a crisis, it faced five crises. – Fintan O’Toole, Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic

His feet stabbed, he swerved and slowed. – William Golding, The Inheritors

“I don’t know that he was rich but he was comfortably well off, he owned furniture stores and made a good living from them.” – Laurence Block, A Ticket to the Boneyard

The bathroom door was still closed, the water was still running, Janet Simon was still smoking, Ellen Lang was still standing with her arms crossed, cold. – Robert Crais, The Monkey’s Raincoat

Inner circles form and compete with other inner circles, wizard wars with witch. – Erik Davis, Nomad Codes

He hadn’t been a bad guy, he just had a lousy job. – Sara Paretsky, ‘Dealer’s Choice’, in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, edited by Byron Preiss

The car had to be coming here, the road ended here. – Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone

Who remembers Mary Dunne, the actress, who even in the business remembers me? – Brian Moore, I Am Mary Dunne

One had died under interrogation, the other three had been imprisoned in Guantanamo. – Robert Harris, The Ghost

He arched his back at the window, the breadth of his shoulder blacked out the window spaces. – Aidan Mathews, Adventures in a Bathyscope

What they say doesn’t mean anything, what they ask doesn’t mean anything. – Raymond Chandler, ‘The Pencil’

“Sacateca is a man of knowledge, he is not in the same class with you fellows,” don Juan said sternly. – Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality

Today Kleist gives pleasure, most of Goethe is a classroom bore. – Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

The accent may or may not have been the joke, it was too early to tell. – W.R. Philbrick, ‘The Empty Sleeve’, in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, edited by Byron Preiss

His mother has retired for the night, he and Norma are downstairs clearing up the children’s mess. – J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals

But there was no one there, it did not open, no one left or came in. – S. J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep

The empties clatter into the fire, smokes mingle, dusk settles, there is laughter. – Daniel Woodrell, ‘Black Step’, in The Outlaw Album

She was used to not talking, she could stand that well enough. – Ron Rash, The Cove

“I look over the rail to downstairs, he’s in the foyer.” – Elmore Leonard, Mr. Paradise

If it had been about the Moon, the answer would be no, but it wasn’t, it was about the Earth. – Andrew Smith, Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth

He did not know what to make of it, he often wandered its little hallways in amazement. – China Miéville, Kraken

Doors slam along the length of the train, a whistle blows, they shudder forwards. – Robert Harris, Enigma

If Glynn left, he would not return, that much was plain. – Claire Kilroy, All Names Have Been Changed

I had no intention of allowing the History of the Eiger’s North Face to become a mere calendar of climbs, its foreground theme was to be the men who had done those climbs. – Heinrich Harrer, The White Spider

“Liz, you’re exactly the same, it’s fantastic to see you!” – Angela Bourke, ‘Ham’, in By Salt Water

He was scowling, his lips pouted, his eyes were half shut while he noticed everything that went on. – Frank O’Connor, The Holy Door

Cosmic energy, individual energy, sexual energy, intellectual energy, all are prāṇa. – B. K. S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga

We were strangers, really, perhaps we were always strangers. – A. D. Miller, Snowdrops

It lit up the one boot holding the length of beech in place, it lit the arms moving the blade slowly up and down as it tore through the beech, white chips milling out on the chain. – John McGahern, The Wine Breath

Irish motor-car assemblers made a rough-and-ready job of it, my father used to say, the Austins and Morrises and Vauxhalls that came direct from British factories were twice the cars. – William Trevor, The Raising of Elvira Tremlett

Sheelagh Burke was at school with me, we both attended the Dominican Convent in Portstewart. – Anne Devlin, Passages

Some studies say 70 percent, other say 30. – Martin Amis, Night Train

The town behind them was desolate, he was sure not a soul remained there. – Denis Johnson, Fiskadoro

I don’t know when he started to lose his hair, my mother never discussed it. – Anne Enright, The Wig My Father Wore

Maxwell did not set out to make a theory of light, he set out to unify electricity and magnetism. – Lee Smolin, The Trouble With Physics

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42 Responses to Oh, the Splices You’ll See!

  1. Fran says:

    I’m sorry, all those contemporary writers, but they still really annoy me. If there are too many on page 1, I sometimes don’t get to page 2. Is that obsessive?

  2. Stan says:

    Fran: It’s a matter of taste, I suppose. Comma splices set some readers’ teeth on edge; they’re not a problem for others, or they go unnoticed, and there’s a range of reactions in between. It can depend on the type of prose and on other local conditions. I use them rarely if at all in my own writing, but I wanted to challenge the superstition that they’re always wrong.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    I like the little ‘rests’ they generate, a splinty splice of time for reflection.
    Run on sentences however can be wearying.
    XO
    WWW

  4. Stan says:

    WWW: I think their little rests work best when a certain effect is sought. Banville’s prose, which so often comprises intimate inner monologues on memories triggered by a sensuous present, would seem pompous were it strewn instead with semicolons, and choppy if full stops were used.

    “Splinty splice of time” is a lovely phrase!

  5. demurelemur says:

    I’m with Fran. I don’t think I’d get to page two if page one were all comma splices, no matter how much I trusted the skill of the writer and no matter what internal state said splicing was supposed to convey. But then reading through the examples you’ve given, only one, from Straw Dogs, actually irks me. I think it’s because Gray’s usage (taken out of context obviously, but I’m familiar with the timbre of the book) seems to add little that is expressive.

    At any rate, lovely post Stan. Good to have my long standing comma prejudices challenged.

  6. Stan says:

    Thanks, demurelemur. I agree about Gray’s comma splice. His point would have been better served by a dash or a semicolon. But if the other examples didn’t bother you, it suggests that there’s potential for habituation. Within reason, of course. The Sea is not so littered with them as I might have suggested: there are many, but not too many. Sometimes it’s a matter of talking oneself into accepting a usage that we know is acceptable but feel is improper.

  7. [...] on virtually every page. Here’s the Queen’s English Society on comma splices, a subject I wrote about recently (summary of my conclusions: they’re not automatic errors, they’re not evil, they can be fine, [...]

  8. Jim Brown says:

    Dear Stan,

    I agree that if there’s to be a comma splice it be used carefully and with full intent for a given effect; and if we see too many comma splices, it’s typically a sign of sloppy prose. I also appreciate your including me with such fine company of writers who on occasion break “the rules.”
    Best,
    Jim Brown
    L.A. Diaries

  9. Stan says:

    Jim: Yes, that’s essentially how I feel about them too. Comma splices oughtn’t to be overdone, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with them; used judiciously they can serve a useful purpose. Thank you for your visit, and for The L.A. Diaries, which I found gutsy, moving, and powerful.

  10. Stan, Mister MRP and I recently read “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers. I was able to get through the whole thing, but Mister MRP gave it up about halfway through. I’m convinced that it was the relentless comma splices that drove him over the edge. I suspect the “no comma splices” rule is just one of those things that English teachers enforce (such as “Thou shalt not start any sentence with “I”) because it’s easier to say “do not do it” than to explain the judicious use of it.

    I don’t mind them and use them in my own writing on occasion. But I have had sticklers call me out once or twice for using them over on MRP.

  11. Michele says:

    Sentences with short phrases separated by comma splices tend to make me a little breathless, as if the writer or narrator has much to say and is in a hurry to get the words out. It’s a technique that can be very effective when handled well.

  12. Stan says:

    MRP: Yes, simple prohibition is far easier to dole out than qualified guidance that comes with a slew of exceptions and prerequisites. The simple approach is justifiable, to an extent, but it shouldn’t be adopted too sternly. The links in paragraph 2 — not to mention the rampant comma-splice-induced agonising I see on Twitter — suggest that many people are automatically appalled by them. But there’s a big difference between using comma splices without knowing what they are, and using them in full awareness of their potential effects.

    Michele: That’s true. There’s a sense of hurrying, of forward momentum. When commas appear where stronger marks would normally be used, the pace quickens; there might also be a frisson from our sense that the writer has strayed, grammatically, beyond what’s widely considered acceptable.

  13. Jim Brown says:

    Everyone,

    I’m really enjoying this intelligent conversation on the comma splice. I teach literature and writing, and you wouldn’t believe (or maybe you would)just how many students don’t understand when and where to use the semi-colon and period to avoid the comma splice error. All too many don’t know what a comma splice is, and so even in an upper-division or grad level lit class I often find myself discussing the comma splice after turning back a batch of papers. In my creative writing classes, I’m more lenient about grammar, but stress that if you plan to break “the rules,” you best know them first, and if the comma splice isn’t being used intentionally and for a certain effect, it’s being used incorrectly. (Stan, thanks for the generous words about L.A. Diaries.)
    Best,
    Jim

  14. Bob says:

    I got through an English degree in New Zealand without ever hearing the term “comma splice”. I don’t think it is bothered about in BE either. Whether one uses a comma, semi-colon, colon, or full-stop between independent clauses depends on the rhetorical effect one wants to achieve.

    Something stronger than a comma may be often called for between two independent clauses, but it is absurd to say this is a “rule” of grammar. There is no official grammar of English and most prescriptive “rules” are simply the unsupported opinions or preferences of self-appointed experts from the 17th and 18th centuries.

  15. Stan says:

    ‘Whether one uses a comma, semi-colon, colon, or full-stop between independent clauses depends on the rhetorical effect one wants to achieve.’

    Bob: This is well put. Since the comma originated in marks used to signal pauses while reading aloud — opportune moments to take a breath — it is intimately tied to the rhythm of prose, and ought accordingly to be used as a prosodic tool, not as an automatic excuse to berate people.

  16. Jim Brown says:

    Stan,

    Nicely put. I agree with Bob. But I’m for “grammar rules,” in most cases, for clarity’s sake, especially for those still struggling to master the language, and as an English professor, believe me, I see lots and lots of students in need of guidance. On the other hand, I’ve already broken one of those “rules,” by beginning the previous sentence with a coordinating conjunction. This is another case, though a small one, where “rules” interfere with style, purpose, art, rhythm, and so forth.

  17. Stan says:

    Thanks, Jim, and welcome back. Yes, for learners simple rules are generally best. But I think it’s also worth telling them about the exceptions, at least on some occasions, so they’ll understand that some rules can be bent or judiciously broken. The ‘rule’ against comma splices is one such.

    I consider the proscription against beginning a sentence with And or But nothing more than a dogged superstition, a zombie rule. It’s a perfectly standard construction, and I’ve never seen a good argument against it. Though I wouldn’t overdo it, especially in very formal contexts.

  18. Jim Brown says:

    Hey Stan,

    I second you, that it’s important to tell even beginning writers that the “rules” can and at times should be broken. To teach them otherwise, that there are no exceptions, just isn’t right or true. But I like them to know standard constructions because so many struggle just putting words to paper in an intelligible form. As for not beginning sentences with a coordinating conjunction, I like how you put it, a “zombie rule,” and the same goes for me, that I’ve never heard a good argument supporting it. I’ve definitely never lived by it.

  19. Stan says:

    Jim: That’s the key. Before someone can break a rule effectively, they have to understand it. A lot of poor writing stems from ignorance of grammatical rules, and some from slavish adherence to pseudo-rules. Those who treat rules as a creed tend to scorn those who break them; I have little patience with this brand of petty, dogmatic one-upmanship, which appears to be thriving online.

    ‘Zombie rule’ was coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky, I think, in the fourth bullet point of his analysis of the that–which rule at Language Log (2005). He mentions it again here, in a post that addresses sentence-initial However vs. But.

  20. Jim Brown says:

    Hey Stan,

    I had a professor back in the day that was one of “those who treat rules as a creed” and, yes, she also tended “to scorn those who break them.” I do not remember her fondly. We had something of a confrontation about grammar and she reported me to the Director of the Composition Program. I was a T.A. at the time, and, because I protested strict adherence to a few of her rules, I ended up having to take a grammar test myself. A part of me wanted to blow it off, flunk it, but I needed the money from the T.A. position, so I took the test. And (broken rule) passed it with flying colors. What this proves, I’m not sure. Just a story. And another sentence fragment.

  21. Stan says:

    Good story, Jim. You were right to stick to your guns. I wonder if the professor ever relaxed her attitudes to grammatical correctness. I hope so, for everyone’s sake, but some people seem simply unable to accept that the rules they’ve taught and lived by amount to less than some ultimate truth.

  22. [...] which for a blog post showing how common and standard it is – much as I’ve done with comma splices. I soon gave up because the usage is ubiquitous: It would be like collecting examples of [...]

  23. Doug says:

    One usage where I generally find the comma splice to be acceptable is in a list comprising more than two independent clauses.

    “I covered the front door, Jimmy went around to the back, and Jane watched the side yard.”

    “Sheila looked for her keys on the table where they belonged, she looked in the bedroom, she looked in the kitchen, then she thought to look in her purse.”

    Sometimes it even works without the coordinating conjunction before the final clause: “Veni, vidi, vici.” — Julius Caesar (Oh wait, that’s not English…)

    Amalgamating the two cases, there are some instances where I’ll accept a comma splice in a two-item list of independent clauses: “Bananas are sweet, lemons are sour.”

  24. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Doug. In your first example, the conjunction before the final clause means there are no comma splices in that sentence. If you removed “and”, there would be.

    “Veni, vidi, vici” (and its English translation “I came, I saw, I conquered”) is an example of asyndeton, which I refer to in the post — as does John E. McIntyre in his post, also linked above.

  25. Mark Atterberry says:

    Stan, you must have a mind like Dr. Johnson’s to be able to come up with all these illustrative quotations. Can you compose verse while stirring your tea?

  26. Stan says:

    Far from it, Mark! I just started making a note of splices I saw while reading, then I add them here from time to time (but just one per book). Wish I’d thought of recording them years ago.

    When stirring tea, I try to do nothing but stir tea: better for the tea, and better for me.

  27. The Ridger says:

    My biggest gripe with comma splices is people who call it a grammar error. It’s not. It’s punctuation, and punctuation is almost never (though occasionally) grammar.

  28. Stan says:

    Karen: It depends on how you define grammar (I have a post half-written on this, so stay tuned!). One or two traditional senses of the word could accommodate ‘rules’ that are based not on grammar but on convention or style, including punctuation. This is a useful distinction but one that doesn’t seem to have leached into the popular understanding of grammar.

  29. [...] where we would expect to see which; or it could be a demonstrative, which means there’s a comma splice where we would expect a dash or full [...]

  30. [...] but drop-off in published works suggests a growing opinion that it was informal. Stan Carey’s post on comma splices serves in part as a repository for modern splices, and most of his examples feel informal as [...]

  31. [...] on this at The Economist, of all places, and also a followup here.) [...]

  32. [...] are more serious shortcomings. Comma splices are not always errors, but they oughtn’t to appear in a book on punctuation without comment; [...]

  33. It’s a useful tool, the comma splice, but it does seem to me that some of the cited examples would benefit stylistically from a stronger stop. The one that struck me as I was scanning them:

    “People with ASD can certainly become angry and upset, they are not robots.”

    Were it my sentence, I’d prefer a semi-colon (*in this example*):

    “People with ASD can certainly become angry and upset; they are not robots.”

    or at least:

    “People with ASD can certainly become angry and upset, they’re not robots.”

    But I’d count it as a style choice, and perhaps a marginal one, not a matter of grammar.

  34. Stan says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. Given the option, I too would strengthen many of the stops in the exmaples above, or at least recommend it. The line you quote would also work with a colon or dash. Yet the comma splice survived multiple writing drafts and editing phases, which is interesting.

  35. Claire Stokes says:

    The comma splice definitely fits for Garrison Keillor, much beloved of my kin folk. His speaking style is all about folksy storytelling, and his rambling narratives are as self-indulgent as they are popular. Speaking about him in particular, and the rest by association: the lack of structure can make me fretful, if there’s too much of it. Have to really trust the writer, and be on the same wavelength and all. More structured writing leans less on the reader, IMHO.
    No Carl Sandburg listed yet! I bet he’s no stranger to this technique either, his ‘Rootabaga Stories’ in particular. I’ll have to check now.

    • Stan says:

      I’d go along with that, Claire. It’s not a construction that normally stands up to frequent repetition, except in the hands of very capable writers who can draw you sufficiently into their rhythm. I haven’t read much Sandburg, I’m afraid, and none of his prose I think.

  36. […] and the modal+of construction (“might not of”), so I’ve updated my giant collection of comma splices in literature and […]

  37. […] the (superficially similar) comma splices with demonstrative pronoun that – not least because literary comma splices are commoner than you might think. Take these two sentences from Claire Kilroy’s novel All Names […]

  38. […] Here the comma splice serves the rhythm of the description. Awesome. (Hemingway is known for nonstandard comma use, but you see way more run ons than comma splices.) Here's a great long list of comma splices, many of them beautiful bits of writing, done by all sorts of authors: Oh, the Splices You […]

  39. […] meant to be broken and that using comma splices can be a stylistic choice, I’ve already read a handful of essays defending this rogue technique. I do concede that great writers can make it work, and […]

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