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At university, it was drilled into us to avoid comma splices like the plague, but I keep seeing them in all different types of famous, best-selling novels.

I read things (all in dialogue, in inverted commas) like:

-You wouldn't like it, believe me.

-Trust me, I know what I'm taking about.

-I'm not going, I don't care what you see.

-He's a straight shooter, I'll give him that.

-I'm warning you, don't test me.

-I told you, he doesn't work on Mondays.

-Don't worry, I won't tell anyone.

I keep seeing this type of things in really well-known novels.

I know a lot of editors like to avoid using semi-colons and colons in dialogue, and wonder if this is why so many comma splices are creeping in?

Are comma splices more acceptable in dialogue than in regular text, in the way that commas can indicate pauses and so mimic more natural sounding speech?

Is there also an argument that says that commas in dialogue, even if they cause comma splices, are less distracting to the reader than a semi-colon in the middle of a sentence, which they may not fully understand or that may take away from the natural flow of the words?

I was wondering if any writers here would use comma splices in dialogue as above.

Any advice would be appreciated! Thank you.

  • 2
    In addition to the good answers you've already got, it's worth noting that in some of the examples you've quoted (though by no means all of them), one part of the comma-spliced pair, though having the grammatical form of a sentence, in practice can be considered a "fixed phrase" that is a single unit of a different grammatical category. For example, "believe me" and "trust me" function more or less identically to "honestly", and "You wouldn't like it, honestly" wouldn't be considered a comma splice :) – psmears Oct 19 '15 at 18:53
  • Thanks Psmears. I get what you mean - very useful, thank you! – MoniqueH Oct 19 '15 at 19:08
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Good question. I copyedit and proofread novels, so I can tell you that this is a grammatical error very commonly allowed in fiction. As you can imagine, novels allow for a bending of conventional grammar rules to account for author style and pacing. In the publishing process, editors develop a style sheet that lists exceptions to grammar and punctuation rules that should be allowed in the work at hand. Comma splices are usually one of those listed exceptions and are often overlooked in both dialogue and narration.

To comment specifically on the use of comma splices in dialogue, though, imagine reading one of these sentences if the comma were replaced by a period:

"You wouldn't like it. Believe me."

The change in punctuation creates a subtle difference in the character's tone, wouldn't you say?

The independent clauses could be joined by a semicolon, but this looks foreign and unnatural in dialogue. There is no actual rule behind this that I know of, just an overall style preference.

A more elegant way to punctuate the dialogue than with the use of a semicolon would be with an em dash. This would make the sentence both grammatically correct and still natural:

"You wouldn't like it—believe me."

Yet this also subtly changes the feeling of the sentence by emphasizing believe me. A comma does more to simply and equally link the two independent clauses.

In summary, don't look to novels to follow grammar and punctuation rules precisely; the priority in popular literature is more on style than perfection.

  • 1
    Thank you Jessica! It's great to hear from someone who actually proofreads novels. I've currently got way too many colons and semi-colons in my dialogue. I've been resisting using comma splices but I'm realizing that they often make dialogue flow so much better. Thanks for the useful answer - I will be taking it on board as I finish my novel! – MoniqueH Oct 18 '15 at 18:59
  • No problem, Monique :) Best of luck with finishing your novel! – Jessica Oct 18 '15 at 19:05
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Obviously, there is no punctuation in spoken dialogue. For a humorous take on what would happen if there were, listen to Victor Borge's routine on "phonetic punctuation." Instead we rely on tone, inflection, stress, and pauses to make our meaning clear. None of these aural cues are available for the written word, so for informational writing we have developed a series of marks as a syntactical guide. The various (and conflicting) standards are all a matter of style, and writers must adapt a style to the reporting of meaningful pauses in extended speech.

Ellipsis points are available to indicate fragmented speech; dashes, to indicate a break in the grammatical structure:

Trust me...I know what I'm taking about.
Trust me--I know what I'm taking about.

Some playwrights use stage direction. Here's a fragment from Emily's monologue in Thorton Wilder's Our Town (emphasis mine):

I love you all, everything. I can't look at everything hard enough. (Pause, talking to her mother who does not hear her. She speaks with mounting urgency.) Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.

James Joyce thought any punctuation would get in the way of Molly Bloom's stream of consciousness monologue in Ulysses, and it famously goes on for over 3600 words without a mark in sight, ending with

... and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Using commas to indicate pauses in dialogue isn't necessarily a bad idea. Remember that they're not really there in speech, and they are often used in writing where people ordinarily pause in speech. Such commas may have to coexist with syntactic commas. For instance, consider a line of dialogue

Let's eat, Aunt Martha.

That comma will be necessary whether a run-on sentence follows or not.

Authors must decide for themselves which style is appropriate for which kind of reported speech, and in particular, whether comma splices are fit unobtrusively with the rhythm of the dialogue.

  • Thanks so much deadrat! This is so useful. I've learnt punctuation rules so rigidly and realize that there is a lot of leeway for writers to use the style that works best. Many thanks for the great answer. – MoniqueH Oct 18 '15 at 18:57

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