C is for Comma Splice and the Evils of Punctuation

Ready for some pain?

Guess what if you dont use proper punctuation your ability to create clear meaning which is the backbone of effective story telling disappears in a frustrating jumble of words!!

If you read that paragraph with a fire of rage in your belly, then we’re more alike than you might expect (if, indeed, you had any expectations about our similarities). While not a grammar nerd, I’ve always felt that improper punctuation leads to the worst of all writing sins: lack of clarity.

Is it possible to use punctuation to do nifty, funny things? Yes, but not easily.

Can it be twisted and used in clever ways to great artistic effect? Yes, but probably not by you. Sorry for being harsh, but it’s true—at least until you become a tenth-level master of the dot, dash, and those various squiggly lines.

Comma Splice

Which brings me to the comma splice. For example:

There was nothing I could do, the path was blocked by bears with pitchforks.

Comma splice! (Also, what are the bears doing with pitchforks? I dunno.)

The reason splices are offensive to many editors is because there’s a simple solution: use a period instead. It’s basic. Editors, agents, and publishers (not to mention certain readers, wink-wink-nudge-nudge) like to see basics being followed. So instead:

There was nothing I could do. The path was blocked by bears with pitchforks.

Now, there are other ways to resolve the comma splice. For example, the oft-derided semi-colon:

There was nothing I could do; the path was blocked by bears with pitchforks.

The reason I feel* the semi-colon works here, is because while the two sentences are each complete, they’re also inexorably linked. The reason ‘there was nothing to do’ is because the ‘path was blocked.’ One builds entirely on the other.

You could also rephrase by using a linking word:

There was nothing I could do since the path was blocked by bears with pitchforks.

As with most punctuation offenses, the solutions can be quick and effective. The trick is taking ownership of your woes and learning to do it right. There seems to be a strange, “I’m just no good at grammar/punctuation/spelling,” mentality that happens to some authors. Whether it was being called out at school and embarrassed, feeling like it’s ‘beyond’ them to learn, or plain old laziness, it’s upsetting to hear from someone who wants to tell stories that they can’t be bothered with the basics. Don’t give up, it can be learned.

And …

Guess what? If you don’t use proper punctuation, your ability to create clear meaning—which is the backbone of effective story telling—disappears in a frustrating jumble of words.

Phew. Just had to get that off my conscience.


* email your semi-colon hate-mail to: aliya@aliyasmyth.com

This is an entry from my bestselling* book, A is for Adverb: An Alphabet for Authors in Agony. To read the entire alphabet, join me weekly for #WriteTipTuesday. If you’re in a rush, get the whole book free by signing up here, or do this writer a solid and buy the book on Amazon.

*Totally a bestseller for, like, a day on Amazon.ca.

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