First, they show readers where to pause and take a breath while they are reading. Second, they also indicate the grammar of a sentence. Nowhere do these two functions come into conflict more than with the infamous .comma splice.
It’s quite likely that you’ve already had an instructor tell you that you’ve produced a comma splice or two in your essays. And if you’re still confused as to just what that means, trust me, you’re not alone.
A common definition of a “splice” has to do with repairing rope: sailors, for example, will interweave the frayed ends of two pieces of rope together to make a single long piece. “Splice” was also used in the days of reel-to-reel movies: when editors wanted to edit a picture, they would physically tape together, or “splice,” pieces of film footage. Nowadays, you’re more likely to hear about “gene splicing,” the practice of inserting different genes into biological specimens.
Whatever the situation, the word “splice” means “to unite or to join.” And in the case of the comma splice, this describes the act of joining two sentences together with a comma.
So what’s the problem?
This is the point at which the two functions of the comma come into conflict. It’s totally natural for any English speaker to pause, if only briefly, at the end of a sentence. Not surprisingly, many writers instinctively drop in a comma to mark that intake of breath. That’s fine if the comma is followed by a single word or phrase. But if what follows is in itself a full sentence, then the rules of grammar kick in.
As I said, a comma splice is the error of joining two grammatical sentences together with only a comma, — because the comma is not considered strong enough to do the job on its own. Instead, grammarians dictate that either
- the writer should replace the comma with a period, semi-colon, or colon as appropriate to signify the pause, or
- a co-ordinate conjunction like “and” or “or” needs to be added after the comma, or —
- as is often the most natural solution – the writer can keep the comma by using a subordinate conjunction to make one sentence less important than the other.
Let’s see what that means with an actual example of a comma splice:
Elephants around the world are an endangered species, poachers still kill them indiscriminately for their ivory tusks.
Grammatically what we have here are two sentences:
- Elephants around the world are an endangered species.
- Poachers still kill them indiscriminately for their ivory tusks.
If a writer wants to join these two together, then grammarians dictate that a comma just isn’t up to the task. Possible solutions to the problem would be:
- Elephants around the world are an endangered species: poachers still kill them indiscriminately for their ivory tusks.
- Elephants around the world are an endangered species, but poachers still kill them indiscriminately for their ivory tusks.
- Although elephants around the world are an endangered species, poachers still kill them indiscriminately for their ivory tusks.
These are only three possible solutions. How many different variations can you produce to correct this comma splice?