5 Ways to Fix the Comma Splice

By Mark Nichol

A comma splice is simply a sentence in which a comma is called on to do more than is appropriate for the workaday but weak punctuation mark. When a sentence contains two independent clauses — each of which could essentially stand on its own — separated by a comma (or by nothing at all, in which case it’s called a fused sentence), employ one of these five strategies to fix the splice and create a correct connection:

1. “Of course not all companies will survive, it is our goal to give the investing public accurate information on all companies profiled.”
Divide the sentence into two (and set “Of course” off with a comma as well): “Of course, not all companies will survive. It is our goal to give the investing public accurate information on all companies profiled.”

2. “Some buildings hearken back to Main Street, USA, others offer strip-mall modernism.”
Insert a subordinating conjunction to convert either clause into a subordinate clause (one that depends on the other to be the main clause): “Some buildings hearken back to Main Street, USA, while others offer strip mall modernism.” (While could, alternatively, begin the sentence.)

3. “Several people have told me they want to buy a house before they are laid off, otherwise they won’t be able to get a loan.”
Replace the comma with a semicolon (and, in this case, set otherwise off from the rest of the second clause: “Several people have told me they want to buy a house before they are laid off; otherwise, they won’t be able to get a loan.”

4. “At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender, at other moments, an angelic choir.”
Separate the clauses with a coordinating conjunction: “At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender, and at other moments, an angelic choir.” (The final comma and the elided phrase “an angelic choir” are correct; repetition of “it resembled” is implied.)

5. “Other cops have an alternative solution, they simply arrive on the scene long after the criminals have fled in order to avoid any confrontation.”
Employ a colon in place of the comma when what follows is a definition or explanation stemming from the first clause: “Other cops have an alternative solution: They simply arrive on the scene long after the criminals have fled in order to avoid any confrontation.” Better yet, to create a stronger impact with the sentence, move the final modifying phrase forward as a parenthetical: “Other cops have an alternative solution: In order to avoid any confrontation, they simply arrive on the scene long after the criminals have fled.”

More than one of these strategies is usually an option; each of the sentences above can be repaired with at least two of the methods described. Often, however, depending on the sentence content and structure, one solution will stand out as the best. (An em dash can also be used to set one independent clause off from the other.)

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10 Responses to “5 Ways to Fix the Comma Splice”

  • Stephanie

    Are you always supposed to capitalize the word after a colon? I’ve never seen/noticed that before.

  • Mark Nichol

    Stephanie:

    Stay tuned for a post specifically about colons later this week that will answer your question.

  • Mark Nichol

    A site visitor pointed out to me that the passage in example #4 about the elided phrase “an angelic choir” is confusing, and I agree. It would have been better for me to write “(The final comma and the elision of “it resembled” are correct; repetition of that phrase is implied.)”

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    “Separate the clauses with a coordinating conjunction: “At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender, and at other moments, an angelic choir.” (The final comma and the elided phrase “an angelic choir” are correct; repetition of “it resembled” is implied.)”

    I don’t think the final comma is wrong (exactly): it can be justified for other reasons. But is “at other moments, an angelic choir” an elliptical independent clause? I’m not sure, but I would have said, instead, that it’s part of a compound direct object. The basic structure is, ‘It resembled the pitch and a choir.’

  • Mark Nichol

    Stephen:

    Yes, it’s an an elliptical independent clause, so the comma marks the elision.

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    Then, how do you distinguish an elliptical independent clause from a compound direct object? (Sometimes it makes a difference.)

    A simple example, ‘John called Jack and Jill’? Is ‘Jack and Jill’ a compound direct object or an elision of ‘John called Jack, and Jack called Jill? And how do you know? (I’d be inclined to say you should invoke elision only when you can’t otherwise explain the grammar.)

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    ‘‘John called Jack, and Jack called Jill?” The elided version should be “John called Jack, and John called Jill.”

  • Peter

    Are you always supposed to capitalize the word after a colon? I’ve never seen/noticed that before.

    Not in English usage, but the Oxford Style Manual says Americans capitalize “any grammatically complete sentence” following a colon. (Don’t have Chicago handy.)

  • Ann

    Thank you. I enjoyed this exercise today.

  • Gabrielle

    I work from home as a transcriber of interviews for, sometimes, (not all) nit-picking clients who insist on daft capitalisation for every goddamn thing, even animals? I take no notice but what I find difficult is splicing of commas, length of paragraphs, and use of commas, semi-colons, and colons. And (there I go again), YES, is it correct to capitalise the first word following a colon?

    One client sacked me for starting a sentence with ‘And’. In a, so called, formal interview is that not permissible, or in any type of writing? And another thing: for example. I write, ‘Doctor S. with whom he [Bill] has an appointment to see at midday, has to sign some lengthy document for the GIO to cover the cost’.

    Thanks, in anticipation, for your assistance.

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