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This is not a duplicate of earlier questions asking whether or why the comma splice is an error, because I am asking about the debate itself: unlike many another grammar rule that is widely accepted by all parties, why are so many people on opposite sides when it comes to the comma splice?


I see comma splices every day in very well written members' comments on multiple Stack Exchange sites and also in so many articles on the World Wide Web. My mind keeps identifying the comma splice and suggests the semicolon as a possible alternative. With such widespread use the comma splice seems to have gained descriptive legitimacy. I sometimes use comma splice myself and only recently learned that some grammarians consider it an 'error.'

Looking back over the previous questions about comma splice I came across this relatively recent question:

Why is the comma splice an error?

And I was surprised to see I had already posted this comment:

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 at 1:43

To which another member responded,

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 at 3:09

There definitely exists a wider grammatical debate beyond this website about the appropriateness of the comma splice.

From “Grammar Tips” a website run by Tina Blue, lecturer and author of several articles, who affirms

The fact is, though, that in the U.S. a lot of people who are sure they understand the "rules" of English firmly believe that all comma splices are not just errors, but really big errors, and that any one who commits a comma splice is demonstrating a fundamental inability to control a sentence. If I were to use a perfectly acceptable comma splice, I can be sure that an awful lot of people would assume that I have no mastery of sentence boundaries. […]

Sometimes it seems that the rule against comma splices is the only rule that many people –English teachers especially!– have managed to master, and so they are always on the hunt for an opportunity to wield it against someone. (link) While it is true that in American usage most comma splices are errors, it is also true that some are worse errors than others, and some are not errors at all. I am not even sure it is considered a matter of concern in British usage [...]

On the other hand, from the Economist blog article rather hyperbolically titled "The dreaded comma splice":

SEVERAL months ago I was surprised to see Arnold Zwicky, a linguist, use a comma splice. A few commenters took me to task for being over-picky. The question came up again in the comments several days ago, when k.a.gardner, a frequent commenter, asked for a post on the comma splice. One of my colleagues quickly replied that "The comma-splice rule is totally arbitrary," and a back-and-forth ensued.

What is a comma splice? Prof Zwicky wrote back in July

"this is not even a tempest in a teapot, it's a fuss in a thimbleful of spit."

That's two independent clauses joined only by a comma, or a comma splice [...]

Is there any more doubt that an established debate exists with strong and entrenched views on either side? It is not even an opinion based but a grammar-based debate. And I want to know why.

The C-clamp and the notorious sandwich:

In a closely related article Tina Blue goes on to say:

Barbara Wallraff, who writes the delightful "Word Court" column on the back page of The Atlantic Monthly, has recently published a book on the correct use of language. [...] The current Quality Paperback Book catalogue quotes from her a wonderful line about comma splices--

"Take this sentence, for example: 'It's not a comet, it's a meteor.' According to Wallraff, 'punctuating this sentence with a semicolon would be like using a C-clamp to hold a sandwich together.' "

Precisely!

There are times when a comma splice is a justifiable stylistic device, not an error.

So is it really a matter of style?

if large numbers of well educated English writers are using comma splices as well-considered stylistic alternatives to semicolons and conjunctions (both of which they may consider outdated and excessive), how long can some grammarians continue to deem it a to-be-avoided error?


Conclusion:

Of course I am no grammarian myself, but this is a query as to WHY there is still a grammatical debate rather than consensus over the comma splice. Why does the comma splice elicit such marked disagreement when many another grammar rule has been widely accepted by all parties?

Specifically, what stylistic or grammatical reasons prevent users and grammarians from reaching a consensus on the issue?


Many thanks to @Edwin Ashworth for updating his comprehensive answer on the original question and introducing us to the excellent articles of Tina Blue.

Note to members: I welcome adequate references to ensure that your answers are not read by others as 'primarily opinion based.'

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Nov 4 '17 at 14:48
  • Please use comments only to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Other types of post can be made in the chatroom created for the purpose (see above). Fair warning: unfortunately, it is not technically practical for moderators to perform more than one migration from the comment thread to the chatroom. So further discussion here will simply be deleted. – MetaEd Nov 13 '17 at 16:09
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+100

The reason some native speakers have a knee-jerk reaction whenever they identify and see a "comma splice" is because their English teachers drummed it into them that it was wrong. Just like they drummed it into them that ending a sentence with a preposition was wrong and that beginning one with 'and' or 'but' was wrong. It may be that things like these were taught by teachers who felt students needed to grasp "basic writing skills or rules" before going on to "exceptions" (how ((good or popular)) authors actually write in the real world), but that many people never grasped this point and as adults serve as so-called "grammar Nazis" when they see such so-called errors in print. Of course, the comment sections, like tweets or texts, are hardly places to inspect for formal English. I say formal English because such stylistic (not grammatical) issues as the comma splice are usually handled by respected style guides–although note the Economist blogger said that periodical's writing guide doesn't say anything about comma splices–that specialize in writing formal English. You have people, native speakers, railing against each other's usage all the time; just keep reading this site. Another issue, in addition to prowling for comma splices–which they hate because they were taught by teachers to hate it, is the non-use of were in sentences such as If Bill was here, he would have done something about it. A category of people who are grammar Nazis quickly say that were absolutely must be used, using was is an unqualified error.1 And yes that last sentence contains two independent clauses separated by a comma. But whatever it may be, it's not a grammar error.


1 I read such an answer just this morning.

The first edition of this answer started off with the following paragraph; I've demoted it to here because the OP has since modified his question to "stylistic" or grammatical reasons.

So, quoting myself:

There are no grammatical reasons. The comma splice is a matter of punctuation. The article in The Economist doesn't contain the word grammar or any word that begins gramma- as in grammatical or grammaticality. The article by Blue contains the word grammar once, as part of a noun phrase that refers loosely to previous posts 'grammar and usage'.

  • This excellent answer summarises your whole approach to grammar. You are absolutely right, thanks @Clare; and all of that discussion on this question & all linked articles, read together, proves it: it is not an error of grammar but a matter of style! – English Student Nov 4 '17 at 13:50
  • @English well, in addition to making that point, my answer is also intended to show the reason why many people have such negative reactions to "comma splices." – AmE speaker Nov 4 '17 at 14:03
  • "my answer is also intended to show the reason why many people have such negative reactions to "comma splices." __ That was very illuminating and such negative reaction is something which is often so subtle as to be missed by us non-native users. Your points greatly clarified my thinking and so your entire answer is much appreciated @Clare. – English Student Nov 4 '17 at 14:06
  • @EnglishStudent There can be no error of grammar in writing, only a variation from accepted orthographic convention. Grammar is about the syntax and morphology of the spoken language, not about stylistic quirks of writing technologies. An illiterate blind man recounting to you an oral history can commit no comma-splice offence, an observation which tells you that this matter is not about grammar at all. – tchrist Nov 4 '17 at 14:53
  • Yes indeed @tchrist. Someone also suggested that the comma splice more closely matches the style and flow of spoken sentences, which is why it is so commonly seen in informal places like the comments section. – English Student Nov 4 '17 at 16:22
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The reason there is a debate, and such a strong debate, is that it is a matter of preference - whether to use a semicolon, as was most common in English writing previously; or whether to state independent clauses with a comma splice.

And human nature being what it is, there is a tendency - when matters of preference are in consideration - for parties on opposite sides of a preferential divide to want to tell one another what to do.

The very length of comments above indicates that there is strong feeling, yet there is no rule being broken; no crime being committed.

It irritates to see someone doing something different, out of preference, when there is no way to tell them off; no precedence to cite; no legislation to command.

We were all getting along fine with semicolons, till it was decided that wasn't right. So then we started splicing - and now that isn't right.

The thing is, there was nothing wrong in the first place.

And if it ain't broke, why on earth try to fix it ?

  • Thanks a lot for such a wise and sensible assessment of the situation @NigelJ! – English Student Nov 4 '17 at 13:47
  • Indeed. One person's comma splice is another's polysyndeton... – Rob_Ster Nov 9 '17 at 17:46
  • I still absolutely do not understand what some people think is 'wrong' with the semicolon... __ "The thing is, there was nothing wrong in the first place. And if it ain't broke, why on earth try to fix it ?" – English Student Nov 11 '17 at 6:34
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I believe the best answer ever given to this type of question was provided by Charles Harrington Elster in The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunications (1999). While he dealt with pronunciation, the psychological implications of what he has to say are relevant to grammar disputes.

I am not opposed to change. Such a position would be untenable. I am skeptical of ignorant, pompous, and faddish change. I am annoyed when people invent pronunciations for unfamiliar words. I am exasperated when they can't be bothered to check the pronunciation of a word they look up in a dictionary. And I deplore our tendency to model our speech after those "whose abilities and character entitle [their] opinions to respect, as Noah Webster wrote, "but whose pronunciation may be altogether accidental or capricious." Change is inevitable, and only time will tell what will perish and what will prevail. In the meantime, however, pronunciations born of laziness or parrotry will feel the lash of my pen.

In other words, I do not believe that it comes down to "stylistic or grammatical reasons" as your question suggests. It comes down to the belief that writers have a duty to write well, a decision about whether a particular usage is a breach of that duty, an embrace of the emotional response a perceived breach engenders, and a willingness to act on that response - and subsequent defensiveness on the part of the accused, who speaks to the decision on usage, but defends the moral accusation.

  • Thanks for writing this though-provoking answer @Adam! Do I understand you correctly as saying that for many people, using the comma splice is a decision made in good faith, probably without knowing there is any such thing as a 'comma splice', and subsequently defended against those who insist (with no more concrete reason than the semicolon 'convention') that it's an error? It makes sense. English as it was used even 150 years ago would have been very different from the modern language and usage. – English Student Nov 10 '17 at 20:41
  • I think yours is a fair characterization of my position. – Adam Nov 10 '17 at 21:00
  • Welcome to English Language and Usage (also called ELU, English.StackExchange or English.SE) @Adam and I hope you will contribute many more such good answers and questions here! – English Student Nov 10 '17 at 21:07
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I blame Dame Agatha Christie, albeit only apocryphally. Upon hearing that she had escaped from her glittering career without the use of a single semi-colon, I resolved to make it my calling card in all that I wrote. Alas, it seems that the spell was already cast. Upon its deployment, all I could ever see on the page was the Dame winking back at me. A semi-colon is like the Mark of Cain for accessible prose; it bears the stigma of literary pretension. I therefore consider this particular schism to be an archetypal dilemma of Hi-Lo acculturation. This happens to be the case a fortiori if you happen to hail from the Antipodes: This Is Serious Mum (obscenity warning).

  • Mind-blowing answer, thanks @Sagacious Ewe! "A semi-colon is like the Mark of Cain for accessible prose; it bears the stigma of literary pretension." __ I feel slightly sick to think I have always been a "semicolon person" and only recently 'discovered' the comma splice. I have read several of Dame Agatha's novels and always felt she was not bothered about the language as such, and concentrated on the plotting. Obviously all her works are extremely accessible. You must absolutely become a regular member and contribute many more such mind-blowing answers and questions here on English.SE! – English Student Nov 11 '17 at 6:20
  • More about "semicolon person" and other punctuation preferences in this article I just discovered online: newmilkolate.blogspot.in/2005/06/… – English Student Nov 11 '17 at 6:24
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    @EnglishStudent what is well supported about this answer? You asked for references, you say you do not want answers based on personal opinions, and yet you gush with praise for this answer. The fault lies with Agatha Cristie? And Sagacious Ewe writes: I therefore consider this particular schism to be an archetypal dilemma of Hi-Lo acculturation. Can you (English Student) please tell me what that means? – Mari-Lou A Nov 12 '17 at 16:36
  • There is no need to debate this under this member's answer, @Mari-lou A. I shall explain to you why I think this is a good answer, either in comments under the question or in chat or meta, but later, because I need to take a relative to the airport and shall not be back online for several hours. – English Student Nov 12 '17 at 17:03
  • May I assume from this exchange that @Mari-Lou is the schoolmistress of @EnglishStudent? I'm otherwise perplexed as to why the endorsement of my opinion could possibly warrant such acerbic and reproachful remarks. As a complete novice to this site, naturally I have no desire to blacken my name with one of its mavens. But unless I have misconstrued the interaction entirely, the maven has been most inhospitable on this occasion and shown manners unbecoming of a mensch. – Sagacious Ewe Nov 19 '17 at 9:10

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