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It's always drilled into us that we shouldn't use comma splices. They're bad, to be avoided and poor form.

But why? What makes the comma a faulty choice in something like this:

I never liked school, it was boring and repetitive most of the time.

It could be replaced with a semicolon, dash, period or colon and be "correct." Yet to a fair amount of people, the comma seems fine. If it weren't, it wouldn't be found so often in online forums, text messages, emails and so on.

What makes the comma between two sentences an error?

  • It seems that comma splice is now considered legitimate. Many members here use it regularly in comments and some even in answers; and at least one senior member (I forget who because it was 2 months back when I was new here) advised me outright that comma splice is preferable to semicolon in modern English writing. – English Student Jul 15 '17 at 1:43
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    @Student. Boo. incorrect usage by senior members does not justify it. It is still incorrect usage, although comment sections are hardly the best example of a context where proper use plays an important role. In formal writing, the comma splice ought to be avoided. – Octopus Jul 15 '17 at 3:09
  • Tradition seems to be the only reason it's judged incorrect. – AmE speaker Jul 15 '17 at 3:28
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    Tradition seems to be the only basis for anything in any language. The only reason "cat" doesn't mean the same as "dog" is that people have, for a long time, agreed on the meanings of these words. The difference between commas and semicolons is based on the same sort of tradition. – Andreas Blass Jul 15 '17 at 5:11
  • Because code prohibits any splice outside of the conduit. – Hot Licks Nov 6 '17 at 22:17
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Is it more accurate to call punctuation rules 'traditions' or 'conventions'?

To my mind, the word "convention" refers to a shared practice that was adopted to serve some perceived practical purpose and that continues (at least arguably) to serve such a purpose today, whereas a "tradition" refers to a shared practice that need not have any other justification for its continuing existence that that we or our predecessors did it in the past.

I would use the term "convention" rather than "tradition" to describe usage rules such as the one against using a comma to separate independent clauses that are not connected by conjunctions. Likewise, putting a period rather than a comma at the end of a declarative sentence is a convention, and so is using single or double quotation marks rather than commas to indicate a "words used as word." It is certainly possible to replace all of the conventional punctuation marks in the paragraph I am now writing with commas—treating them as, in effect, a unitary way to convey the idea, "a punctuation mark of some kind goes here"—and still have a consistent graphical representation of a grammatical utterance. Looking at it, however, you can see why writers and readers might find conventions that entail the use of punctuation marks besides commas (in addition to the convention of using capitalization to indicate the beginning of a new sentence) for particular purposes to be quite valuable:

I would use the term, convention, rather than, tradition, to describe usage rules such as the one against using a comma to separate independent clauses that are not connected by conjunctions, likewise, putting a period rather than a comma at the end of a declarative sentence is a convention, and so is using single or double quotation marks rather than commas to indicate a, word used as word, it is certainly possible to replace all of the conventional punctuation marks in the paragraph I am now writing with commas, treating them as, in effect, a unitary way to convey the idea, a punctuation mark of some kind goes here, and still have a consistent graphical representation of a grammatical utterance, looking at it, however, you can see why writers and readers might find conventions that entail the use of punctuation marks besides commas, in addition to the convention of using capitalization to indicate the beginning of a new sentence, for particular purposes to be quite valuable,

The language is the same. All I've done is replace more-or-less standard conventions for using quotation marks, periods, dashes, parentheses, and sentence-case initial capping with comma-only punctuation and capping only of the pronoun I. Has the grammar changed? No—not if you accept the view that grammar is fundamentally an attribute of spoken language. Punctuation isn't spoken; it's added to the plain words of speech in writing to clarify the internal connections of certain words, phrases, and clauses. Consistent, conventional punctuation helps readers follow the flow of writing with a minimum of misreadings, false starts, and sheer bewilderment.

Because it is based on convention rather than on linguistic necessity, punctuation is sometimes treated as an arbitrary and artificial construct of ignorant or officious rule enforcers—"fake grammar," as it were. But in orthography, as in other spheres of human activity, convention is a powerful force for coherence and shared meaning.


What justification is there for the rule against comma splices?

Viewed in isolation, the convention against comma splices may seem unnecessary and ultimately unjustified. After all,

I never liked school, it was boring and repetitive most of the time.

isn't materially more difficult to parse than

I never liked school. It was boring and repetitive most of the time.

or

I never liked school; it was boring and repetitive most of the time.

But when the wording appears in a larger context, issues of interrupted narrative flow and misdirection become apparent. For example:

I know that some people have fond memories of spending most of their waking life in childhood attending school, they recall the joy of learning, the camaraderie with fellow students, and the opportunity to explore creative tasks, I never liked school, it was boring and repetitive most of the time.

The only unconventional aspect of this block of text is its rejection of the convention against comma splices. Three sentences become one; and because the text is punctuated as a single continuous sentence with two internal comma splices, the word they—which would start a new sentence if the text were punctuated conventionally—is not initial-capped. The comma splices damage the flow of the text and force readers to feel their way carefully through the text to make sure that they haven't run through an ambiguous stop sign and misread the sense of the clause that follows each comma.

The conventional rule against comma splices thus promotes a valuable purpose in limiting the province of things that a comma (which in any event may perform a multitude of functions in writing) can properly signal. By insisting that colons, semicolons, and periods—but not commas—should play the role of indicating abrupt breaks in written text at the end of complete clauses, the convention frees readers from having to include "hard break signal" among the possible meanings of any particular comma they encounter.

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    +1 But I think it would be useful to point out that punctuation is nevertheless based on spoken language, and is in fact an attempt to duplicate the pauses (,), breaks (— or ...), stops (. or :) or things in between (;) that speakers use to delimit their utterances. So ... if the "linguistic necessity" is absent from academic linguistics regarding such pauses in spoken speech, perhaps that is a lacuna that ought to be filled in. As a music teacher once told me, "You have to play the rests just as diligently as you play the notes!" – Robusto Nov 6 '17 at 22:26
  • That may be the reason why this answer to a closely related earlier question suggests that the comma splice closely follows a 'conversational' or 'spoken style' @Robusto. If a modern user knowingly chooses the comma splice over the semicolon it might be because they think the comma splice better reflects their way of speaking that written sentence. A comma splice makes a shorter pause than a semicolon. As in, "punctuation attempts to accurately duplicate the pauses, you have to play the rests just as diligently as you play the notes!" – English Student Nov 7 '17 at 18:00
  • (contd) It may also possibly reflect the style of speaking closely linked sentences with only a small pause in some languages other than English, @Robusto. – English Student Nov 7 '17 at 18:02

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