It’s no secret that proofreaders have their pet peeves. For this proofreader, the error that leaps off the page of nearly every written communication—from emails, to letters, to newspaper articles, to business documents, to her children’s compositions (a painful admission)—is the often undiagnosed comma splice. So prevalent has this mistake become that it fails to catch the attention of even the most prolific writers and copyeditors, and is considered normal and acceptable punctuation.
The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Collegiate® Dictionary defines the comma splice as “the unjustified use of a comma between coordinate main clauses not connected by a conjunction (as in ‘nobody goes there anymore, it's boring’).” Explained another way, it is when two independent clauses, each having a subject and a predicate, and thus capable of standing alone as separate sentences, are joined with merely a comma.
What is actually called for in place of the comma is a semicolon. This mark will properly link the clauses—comprising related ideas—into one sentence. Think of the semicolon as a period and a comma with a coordinated function: The period on top honors the completion of the first thought/clause; the comma below provides a mental pause before additional information is given. While it is a perfect remedy, the semicolon may not be one’s preferred punctuation; indeed, there are other options. Notice the following examples of the comma splice error and how to fix it.
- Incorrect: I can’t believe my ears, the music is fantastic!
- Correct: I can’t believe my ears; the music is fantastic!
- Correct: I can’t believe my ears—the music is fantastic! (Using an em dash)
- Incorrect: Most adults love the recipe, the kids turn up their noses.
- Correct: Most adults love the recipe; the kids turn up their noses.
- Correct: Most adults love the recipe, but the kids turn up their noses. (Adding a conjunction)
Although the comma splice is a frequent literary offense, likely to go unnoticed by most readers, it is nevertheless an improper construction that proofreaders will want to identify and amend. Never mind that one’s audience may not recognize or appreciate the refinement, or that some may consider it to be the product of obsessive editing! The confident proofreader will never concede such a misguided reproach, but will remain vigilant until the very last splice has been diagnosed and repaired.
Author’s final note: Although The Chicago Manual of Style demonstrates proper punctuation relevant to this topic, it doesn’t define “comma splice.” Should the term appear in the 17th edition, you’ll know who waged a letter-writing campaign!