Monday, April 07, 2008

Comma Splices, Grammar Girl and Scott Sigler:

About a year ago, Scott Sigler published a novel, and he invited Grammar Girl to critique it. She reported that his writing was riddled with comma splices. Apparently she chastened him, because she says that his newest book, Infected, is rather free of this grammatical error. Sigler is a successful writer, so I hope he did not cave in too much. Comma splices can be very good for fiction.

The term “comma splice” refers to a compound sentence whose elements are connected by nothing more than a comma. Here’s an example:

She wanted something to drink, she must look for Allan, she had a lot to do, she mustn't just stand there and think.

English supposedly requires that you connect compound clauses with conjunctions, or else separate them properly with periods or semicolons. Let's look at a few “corrections.”

She wanted something to drink. She must look for Allan. She had a lot to do! She mustn't just stand there and think.

That's proper English. But it's slow. Those full stops slow everything down. Sometimes that's the effect you want. But in this case, the writer wants the woman to think fast, so the writer wants the reader to read fast.
Now let's try some conjunctions:

She wanted something to drink, but she must look for Allan, and yet she had a lot to do, so she mustn't just stand there and think.

That's really awful. Maybe we need two sentences:

She wanted something to drink, but she must look for Allan. She had a lot to do, so she mustn't just stand there and think.

That's not so bad, but to my mind, it's a lot weaker than the comma spliced version. It's not easy to find the right conjunctions for some sentences. In fact, sometimes there is no correct conjunction! You might argue that I started with a poorly written sentence that’s not easy to fix. But I think the original sentence has a rhythm to it, a rhythm that I ruined with those pusillanimous corrections.

Long live the comma splice! (In English, at least.)
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