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It's certainly poor style, if not actually wrong, to join independent clauses with a comma when a semicolon or other punctuation would have sufficed. But interjections are usually offset from other clauses by commas, as in:

Dang, what do we do now?

It seems to me that this naturally applies to certain longer phrases, such as:

I don't know, what do we do?

In which "I don't know" functions as a single interjectory unit. According to usual style, that comma ought to be replaced, but to replace it subtly changes the pacing of the sentence, doesn't it? So, does a comma used in this fashion count as a splice or not?

Valid examples:

  • I'm sorry, who are you?
  • What the heck, you only live once.
  • You're welcome, it was my pleasure.

Invalid examples:

  • I'm sorry about that, what can I do?
  • What the heck is going on, these zombies are ruining my earlier example.
  • You are of course very welcome, I'd be happy to lend you my shotgun.
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1  
I'm sorry, I don't understand your question. –  Andy Nov 1 '10 at 5:34
    
You know, is it an error or not? –  Jon Purdy Nov 1 '10 at 5:48
    
I think the last valid example is not. –  Claudiu Nov 1 '10 at 14:11
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@Jon: I think the reason is that "You're welcome" is a complete sentence - "You are welcome." "It was my pleasure" is also a complete sentence. Putting the two together with a comma seems exactly like a spliced comma. –  Claudiu Nov 1 '10 at 20:09
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Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/3429/… –  Marthaª Nov 9 '10 at 18:46

5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The basic statement that independent sentences are not to be connected by commas is disputed. Fowler, of all stylists, calls it superstition; he mentions several factors that may or may not be enough to warrant comma splices: short sentences, a strong link in thought, and the use of certain conjunctions that allow comma linking more than others. Perhaps there were other factors too.

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I think that technically speaking, these are indeed comma splices:

I'm sorry, who are you?

You're welcome, it was my pleasure.

This, however, is not:

What the heck, you only live once.

(Because "what the heck" is not a complete sentence.)

That said, I don't think using a comma with any of these is incorrect. Trying to punctuate them with something other than a comma would inevitably change their meaning, which would be way more incorrect than just living with a slight run-on sentence.

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Depending on the sentence, you could separate it into two sentences or use a colon, semi-colon, or (my favorite) a dash.

  • I'm sorry -- who are you?
  • What the heck? You only live once.
  • You're welcome; it was my pleasure.
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I'd argue that all of your examples are interjection phrases that should be punctuated as you have them in your examples. Consider the phrase "I'm sorry" in your first example. In context it isn't an independent clause. Alone, the sentence "I'm sorry" mean that you are remorseful; however, in the context of the example sentence, "I'm sorry" means something like I may be speaking out of line, but.... This is a dependent clause! In your second example, you could equivalently say: hell, you only live once. The punctuation is obvious when writing it like this. The last example is an exchange of pleasantries, such as: hello, it's a pleasure to meet you. That "you're welcome" is three words shouldn't change how you'd punctuate the sentence.

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Ahh the humble and under-used em dash (note the line utilized in "under-used" this is an "en" dash, ~half the width than the em (—) dash you require). This is the most appropriate way to punctuate independent clauses requiring the subtle pause of a comma, where greater emphasis needs to be placed on the subsequent component; however, don't overuse this crafty hyphen, it has a horrid reputation for being misplaced, changing the tempo or meaning of your sentence.

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A hyphen is not the same as an en dash, but yeah, an em dash usually works in this situation. –  Jon Purdy Nov 5 '10 at 20:14
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I think a dash of any sort changes the meaning. The difference is very subtle--I certainly can't articulate it--but it's there nonetheless. –  Marthaª Nov 5 '10 at 21:34

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